I caught up with film-maker Shelby Hadden to chat film-making, influences, sex, health and creativity in the bedroom and living with the psychologically and physically painful Pelvic Floor Dysfunction (PFD) vaginismus which formed the foundation of her very illuminating animated short documentary Tightly Wound.    

Hadden is a documentarian whose films explore issues of gender and identity. Most recently, she's directed Ms. Texas Senior, a short documentary that follows a beauty pageant for women 60 years and older. Her films have screened at various film festivals including the Nashville Film Festival, Sidewalk Film Festival, and BEA Festival of Media Arts. She is currently a producer at Bring Light & Sound and a lecturer at the University of Texas.

Tightly Wound is a 10-minute animated film that follows Hadden's experience with vaginismus; a pelvic floor condition characterized by involuntary contractions of the pelvic floor muscles that tighten the vaginal entrance, causing pain, penetration problems, and inability to have intercourse. It chronicles the various ways it has affected her life – how health professionals have failed her, men have rejected her, and shame, anger, and hatred have plagued her body.

In these ways, Hadden's experiences and Tightly Wound as a film have a lot to say on the intertwined nature of physical and emotional pain. How does our mind effect our bodies and vice versa? That is a vital core to Hadden's incredible film.

Hadden's use of animation was an interesting choice too – without it, this kind of a movie would have paradoxically felt a lot more sterile, aloof, clinical – because of all the vagaries and minutiae of photographing the nude human body in a medical context and the consequent removed nature that true science also demands. Indeed, Hadden succeeds in her goal of humanizing this issue and her experiences through the raw emotive qualities very present in the film's animated world. One would think that animation would add a distance to the issue but the exact opposite is true.

Overall, Tightly Wound is a film that has a message for men and women in equal measure. For men in particular: why are we treating women with vaginismus the way Hadden was treated? There can be no excuse there when zero empathy was shown her. Hadden expands more on these messages, how her film and experiences tie in to our understanding of human sexuality, film-making and much more in the interview below.

Tightly Wound has been selected for Athens International Film & Video Festival, Becoming Unwound, Annecy International Animated Film Festival in June and Filmets Barcelona Film Festival in October.

Tightly Wound can also be followed here on Facebook.

Hello Shelby and welcome to The 405! I'd like to start, if I may, by getting an idea of your history: what got you into film?

Thanks so much for sharing my story!!

I made my first documentary for my fourth grade science fair project with my parents' camcorder. After that, I was hooked. I'd make my friends run around the neighborhood making movies, game shows, murder mysteries – you name it. I eventually found I could combine my love of filmmaking with my interest in social justice issues in the documentary form.

I love it when that kind of synthesis happens – usually produces the best kind of film I think. Favorite films and directors? Which would you consider most pivotal on your development?

Ooh, I hate this question.

Yeah, it's meant to be a bit of a big question.

Since you've asked me my favorites, not which are the best films I've ever seen, I’d say Pitch Perfect, Footloose, and The Wizard of Oz. As far as favorite films/directors that were pivotal in my development… I love Albert and David Maysels, especially Salesman and Grey Gardens, Nobody's Business by Alan Berliner, Sherman’s March by Ross McElwee, and Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley.

Great choices. What makes a great film?

I believe the best films are those which wrestle with complexities and present a new perspective to give audiences something to think about. I also think it’s really obvious when watching a film if the director really cares about the subject vs. when they just want to make something for the sake of making it.

I think the best films are a result of the director really caring about and connecting with the story.

Still from TIGHTLY WOUND

Absolutely. Getting into Tightly Wound, I think it would be best to start by asking, what do you as a woman and a sufferer of vaginismus want men and women without vaginismus to know? How can men in particular be there and empathize with what's happening?

I want people to know that 20% of women will have a form of pelvic floor dysfunction (PFD) at some point in their lives. (Vaginismus falls under the umbrella term of PFD, other conditions include Vulvodynia, Vulvar Vestibulitis, and Interstitial Cystitis.)

They are extremely common, but because diagnosis and treatment are hard to find as well as that part of your body affects so much of your daily life (since it's in the MIDDLE of your body, which effects how you sit, stand, and walk, and it is where you can make a baby or be intimate with someone you love) they take a toll on how you feel about yourself, your body and sexuality. It's complicated and layered. There's a lot of embarrassment and shame when that part of you doesn't work the way it should.

If you know someone who is struggling with PFD, listen to their stories about their pain, how it makes them feel emotionally, and how it impacts the way they relate to people. Though there is treatment, don't try to give simple solutions to complex problems.  

Absolutely. A little empathy can go along way.

I think men should listen and be patient. Good sex is about communication and being present with your partner. Pelvic floor dysfunction is not a death sentence for your sex life – it just takes time to work through treatment to reach your goals. Plus, there's a lot more you can do to be sexual than just penetration. Be creative!

[Laughs] Exactly! Men can benefit from that immensely, and should be more creative, its what our women deserve. In the vein of that last question, what can the culture at large do to help? There seems to be a deficit of understanding and information on that front especially – candles? Really? I would think there's got to be a better way.

I hope one day that pelvic floor conditions are known just as well as STIs are. I think we need to talk about these issues more and demand that our medical professionals take women’s pain seriously.

What inspired you to go with an animated format for the film?

I'd been wanting to make a film about vaginismus for a few years but couldn't figure out how to make a traditional documentary about it. There are some videos out there with women talking about their experiences in interviews, but I wanted to tell a more visceral and visual story. However, these experiences physically and emotionally are very… internal. 2D animation allows for a more figurative representation of these experiences as well as provides a safe distance for audiences who are uncomfortable with the subject matter.

I really empathized with what you said in the film about physical and emotional pain being intertwined – I get migraines myself which can be aggravated by stress and anxiety. I think that interconnected nature effects many people more than they probably really know. Any words of wisdom on dealing with both sides of the mental/physical pain coin?

Yeah, I think we often underestimate how much our body and our emotional state work together. I believe it was Audre Lorde who said that we don&'t "have a body&" but we "are our bodies." We can’t separate ourselves from our physical self or emotional self and we have to be aware of how they influence each other.

Words of wisdom: Be kind to yourself. Healing takes time and it's not a straight path from A to B. There's a lot of going two steps forward and one step back then three steps back and a step to the right. Find a group of people who know what you are dealing with and lean on them for support when you need it.

Great advice and true words of wisdom.

Still from TIGHTLY WOUND

What would you like audiences to take with them most from Tightly Wound?

I hope people will reflect on some of their experiences and try to be more empathetic to people's pain.

Last, what is next for you?

Sebastian Bisbal (the animator and co-producer of Tightly Wound) and I would really love to make two more animated shorts based on essays I wrote about my experiences related to vaginismus. One of them was recently published in Thought Catalogue here: https://thoughtcatalog.com/shelby-hadden/2018/04/why-waiting-until-25-to-lose-my-virginity-was-the-best-decision-i-couldve-made/

Tightly Wound - Trailer from Shelby Hadden on Vimeo.