In a time where we are collectively working towards fostering a much wider inclusivity of gender, race and sexuality and with recognition of the issues around these subjects growing, it is such a pleasure to come across a film like Hysterical Sisters. Compassionately educating its audience on the stigmatised chronic menstrual conditions of adenomyosis and endometriosis, Chiara Schreder’s arresting short elegantly visualises the daily struggles, loneliness and lack of understanding which overshadows the lives of those affected. It is a sorely needed campaign film that raises awareness through the artistic combination of dance, poetry and music, tapping into the physical pain and emotional stress borne by countless sufferers who have regularly been wrongly belittled or ignored for their supposed histrionics. By reaching out to a vast and supportive online community, Schreder was able to nurture her desire to break taboos in a significant and purposeful way. DN is proud to feature Hysterical Sisters during adenomyosis and endometriosis awareness month and speak to the UK based Austrian director about creating a visual elaboration of her personal pain for a global community of fellow suffers as a means of bringing the perception of these two conditions into a better world of understanding.

How did you come to be writing such an intimate film?

Hysterical Sisters is deeply personal, as I also have adenomyosis and didn’t want to suffer in silence any longer. I think it’s incredibly important to raise awareness for these under-funded and under-researched chronic illnesses. One in ten women and all reproductive-aged people are affected by the debilitating conditions of endometriosis and/or adenomyosis. During an extremely painful cycle, I decided I wanted to visualise my own pain, struggles and experiences in an abstract and artistic context. During my research I realised that there’s a huge online community of sufferers, which felt comforting. Many of us have been misunderstood, dismissed and not taken seriously by society or medical professionals, but we are not alone. Our pain is global and our pain is real. Which is why I created a safe space online where affected individuals can share their experiences. Today, our Instagram account is filled with stories of people from all around the world.

I decided I wanted to visualise my own pain, struggles and experiences in an abstract and artistic context.

Adenomyosis is often referred to as the ‘evil sister’ of endometriosis which is how I came up with the idea of personifying the illnesses through the creation of the two Hysterical Sisters, who torture sufferers during their everyday lives. It was very important for me to accurately portray the diverse range of affected people, as this doesn’t just affect cis-women, but also people with different gender identities, simply depending on a person’s anatomy. Essentially, the film makes it clear that we’re neither hysterical nor hormonal. We’re stuck in a cycle of endless pain.

How did your creative and practical processes develop from idea to film and how long was that journey?

From development to the online premiere, the whole project took around 8 months. The shoot itself only being 4 days. I started by collaborating with my producers Sabine Tatzgern and Sarah Zaza for the first few weeks of pre-production. We then brought in a young team of Viennese and mostly female filmmakers who also wanted to end the silence, taboos and raise awareness for these stigmatised conditions. The project got gradually bigger. Our awareness project was never meant to be a documentary, but rather a very artistic and abstract piece that visualises our daily struggles with these specific illnesses.

The whole cast and crew have put their hearts and souls into making this project. Everyone involved worked without any kind of monetary compensation. Naturally, filmmaking is still expensive, so we needed a specific amount to cover basic production costs, such as equipment, locations, catering, transport, etc. Through the crowdfunding platform wemakeit in partnership with she* makes it, we managed to reach our funding goal over the course of only 45 days. As irony would have it, during the production I was in a lot of pain due to my adenomyosis, these illnesses are awfully complex and our stories and experiences are all different and yet the same. You just have to keep going and trust that a whole bunch of people have got your back and will do everything within their power to make sure that things run as smoothly as possible, all the people around me ensured that which felt fantastic as a director.

The entire post production was supervised and coordinated by myself and Sabine Tatzgern. Our wonderful Editor Luzia Flotzinger did a fantastic job at bringing this story to the screen. We also found many other talented people, who offered to help during the usual stages of postproduction (colour grading, sound design, credits animation, etc.). British actress Joanna Godwin-Seidl did the lovely narration of the film. Musicians Nana Falkner and Raphael Fimm composed a brilliant piece of music for the credits of the film called Burden, which will also be released as a single soon.

What was your process for developing the film’s choreography?

We had our wonderful Choreographer Maartje Pasman on board, who I had worked with before and who also plays Ava in the bedroom scene. During the preparation of the film, we had a few sessions with the ‘sisters’, where we developed the overall style of the dance. For me, it was important to capture the impact the illnesses have on our daily lives. I felt very lucky, that Maartje immediately understood where I was coming from and what kind of expression I was looking for. We didn’t overly choreograph the sequences though, we only practised some movements that would convey the broad subtext of the scene without restricting the actors too much on set. We wanted them to have the freedom to be in the moment and choose whichever movement felt appropriate.

As this is essentially my own story, I felt like I could visualise it from a very truthful place.

How much did the involuntary bodily and mental reactions to the pain of the conditions influence the movements of the cast?

Hugely! The complex ways these chronic illnesses can affect a person had great influence on what the movements should feel and look like. Maartje was focusing on the language and freedom of the dance, while I also wanted to incorporate our pain into the bodily movements and reactions of the characters. As this is essentially my own story, I felt like I could visualise it from a very truthful place. I would graphically describe flare-ups to the actors, like a thousand daggers and knives stabbing our bodies, an elephant sitting on our chest, making it hard to breathe, or your insides being twisted and ripped out, etc. The film is full of symbolism and metaphors, some subtle, others not so much. Like society literally silencing us and dismissing our experiences over and over again.

The narration is a powerful tool within the film, where did the poem originate?

During a particularly painful cycle I was determined to visualise my pain in a creative and abstract context. I knew I wouldn’t use any dialogue, as I strived for it to feel like a combination of a visual poem and emotional music, so I started writing an extensive poem, which shaped the original structure of the narration. I added the storyline afterwards and the visuals came much later. Throughout the development process, I shortened it a bit and refined it more. Our lovely narrator Joanna Godwin-Seidl fine-tuned a few words and improvised some phrases, while we were recording it. We also translated the narration into six different languages, so it could hopefully reach people from all around the globe and give them a voice.

Why do you think that this is still a subject shrouded by mystery and taboo?

Society’s normalisation of menstrual pain. We have been conditioned to not talk about menstruation openly. We get used to hiding our period, putting sanitary products up our sleeves and masking our pain. It takes approximately 7-9 years to be diagnosed, as sufferers are often dismissed and not taken seriously – labeled sensitive, hormonal or hysterical. This takes an immense toll on our physical and mental well-being. Even though awareness has increased significantly over the last few years, these illnesses are still severely underfunded and under-researched. And if no one speaks out about it, nothing is going to change.

Your representation of a wide variety of sufferers was so poignant. How did you decide on the final group of characters in order to cover everyone you wanted to?

These illnesses are awfully complex, they do not just affect one specific group of people in one particular way. It was imperative to also represent sufferers, who don’t identify as cis-women, such as trans men and non-binary people. Endometriosis and adenomyosis are still often associated with ‘lady’ problems. As a society, we should be aware of how this harms people with different gender identities and as filmmakers, we absolutely had to acknowledge this.

We are storytellers and we have the ability to help people feel recognised and seen on screen.

Exchanging experiences with an international online community essentially helped me decide on who our key representatives would be. In hindsight, I would have also liked to include a wider age range in the cast as well, not just in the end credits. As there is a common misconception, that menopause always ‘cures’ one’s symptoms. Ultimately, I structured the plot points around mostly personal experiences, which helped me tell the story of many in the most authentic and truthful way possible.

How did you find your actors to play these roles?

I initially focused on casting the two ‘sisters’, as they were carrying the narrative. I posted a casting call on my Instagram, looking for people who had experience with either of the illnesses. Christina Laas-Smulik, who plays Adeno, messaged me shortly after, saying she also had adenomyosis and would love to work on the project. We soon met up for coffee and immediately bonded over shared experiences, frustrations and pain. It was an inspirational first meeting. I remember thinking: “This is it. That’s who I was looking for”.

The search for the other sister Endo took a bit longer. It wasn’t until my brilliant DOP Lauren Klocker mentioned wonderful actress Janine Hickl that I felt like I had found both of my Hysterical Sisters. Janine did extensive medical research, to gain a better understanding of the illnesses, which essentially helped her personify endometriosis. The supporting cast consists of either people I had worked with before, who I knew would fit their prospective roles or others I have met through colleagues. Everyone involved worked pro-bono to raise awareness for the illnesses, which was incredibly inspiring and motivating.

What were the steps you went through to successfully hit the goals of your crowdfunding campaign?

I started this project by creating an Instagram channel, where we asked sufferers from all over the world to send us their pictures and stories, to connect with other affected people. We then set up a crowdfunding page through the platform and set a start and end date. 45 days to reach our funding goal of 5.500,- EUR. Which wasn’t a lot of time. It was an all or nothing deal, meaning we would only get the money if we reached the required amount. Supporters were able to choose the amount of the donation and the individual reward they would receive in return. Such as film posters, illustrated cards, tampons, etc.

We then came up with a campaign strategy to promote the awareness project on our social media channels as well as our private accounts. Friends, families and colleagues, as well as international endometriosis associations supported our endeavours, like EndoFrance or Endo-Help Switzerland. Our four Executive Producers Kurt Schreder, Imogen Kudraß, Simone Haug and Andrew Toi also sponsored us with generous amounts. We also received financial support from local doctors and medical experts.

When I have an idea I tend to work on it intensively and endlessly, often disregarding my own needs and well being in the process.

The whole process seemed to flow very quickly for you, what do you attribute this to?

I work pretty fast and efficiently in general. It’s a blessing and sometimes a curse. But I do enjoy being well organised and watching a story unfold. When I have an idea I tend to work on it intensively and endlessly, often disregarding my own needs and well being in the process. I’m very aware that this impatience can also limit me in some ways. I’m still working on finding balance.

What hurdles or benefits did you find working on such a personal subject whilst also in pain?

It was somewhat therapeutic as I felt a strong sense of community and support while working on this for over 8 months. But of course, it was also physically exhausting and mentally draining being confronted with your own illness all of the time. This project has definitely taught me to know and define my limits more clearly, as I put my body through a lot during this time. After we finished shooting, I had an unpleasant flare-up that lasted for a few months, where I had to get IV therapy and regular injections to manage the pain. Especially as filmmakers, we often sacrifice our own health for the final product. I think it’s vital to find a compromise that doesn’t limit our creativity but also doesn’t negatively impact our wellbeing.

What are you working on next?

While working on Hysterical Sisters I was actually in the development of another 20min coming-of-age short film, which started principal photography in November 2021. We’re currently in its postproduction. The film is called Marionette and it’s about a young sex worker who is stuck behind the scenes of a puppet theatre dealing with everyday bias and prejudice. On a personal level, I also made a big career choice to go back to uni to get a MA in Directing at the National Film and Television School, moving abroad to the UK, which is where I have been doing projects since the beginning of this year. I’m also excited to work on some ideas, which combine the deep connection to my home in Austria and my new home here in the UK.

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