When I was little, I had an Aunt who liked to stop at construction sites and fill up a cup of red clay dirt that she would then munch on. It was something about this particular type of dirt that she seemed to always find irresistible. As a child, I found this habit mesmerizingly odd. I just couldn’t understand why she would possibly want to eat dirt. My other family members would make jokes about it but no one seemed to have any serious reaction to this behavior. Everyone just went with the fact that she liked dirt as if it were as inconsequential as liking sherbet, another odd thing that some people seem to think tastes good. LOL
About 8 years ago, while working in Kenya, I was at a countryside convenience store and was shocked to see small bags of tiny clay dirt for sale. When I asked my Kenyan coworker about it, she explained that they sell it for use by pregnant women “to give them nutrients.” Immediately, my mind connected this to my Aunt, who was the only other person I knew to eat dirt.
It wasn’t until years later that I fully understood the connection between the two. My Aunt had actually been suffering from anemia most of her life and anemia is often experienced by pregnant women. When the body is lacking something, like in the case of anemia, iron, it will sometimes create urges to consume substances other than food as it’s seeking to get its needs met. This is a form of an illness called pica.
Other forms of pica can have mental health-related causes, particularly Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but the result is the same, an uncontrollable urge to consume something that isn’t food. Depending on the severity of the urges and what the afflicted person is consuming, pica can be life-threatening.
Pica is most commonly found in children, pregnant women and people with autism and other developmental disabilities. In many cases, the disorder lasts several months and then disappears without treatment, according to the National Institutes of Health.Dirt Eaters and Other Pica Cases Nearly Double in Decade
By Rachael Rettner
Thankfully, my Aunt, like the Kenyan ladies, was only consuming dirt. However, sufferers of pica have been known to consume all kinds of non-food items, from things as benign as uncooked flour to as dangerous as thumbtacks. The latter being one of the things that were being consumed by Hunter, our heroine in “Swallow.”
Unlike my Aunt, Hunter’s pica seems to be driven more by a mixture of both physical and mental health issues. She is pregnant and that pregnancy is a trigger for her emotional instability. However, her instability was already looming due to her unresolved unhappiness with her life, and feelings of her lack of control to change it. We see a woman who appears utterly lost in a life devoid of passion, simply going through the motions of her existence unfulfilled.
Hunter develops “pica”, the compulsion to consume inedible objects and materials. This disorder has long fascinated me. I remember stumbling across a beautiful photograph of all the objects found in the stomach of a patient with pica. Resembling the findings of an archeological expedition, the artifacts were fanned out in a circle like the rays of the sun. I asked myself, “Why were these objects selected? Why was the patient drawn to them?” There was something ritualistic and even spiritual about the acquiring and ingesting of these objects, almost like a holy communion.
SWALLOW was inspired by the life of my grandmother, Edith Mirabella, a 1940s homemaker trapped in an unhappy marriage. She developed OCD rituals of control, such as obsessive hand-washing, and was eventually institutionalized at the Columbia Presbyterian Neurological Institute by her husband. I acquired my grandmother’s case file from the Institute and was struck by how she used OCD rituals as a way to create order in a life she felt increasingly powerless in. She went through four cakes of soap a day and twelve bottles of rubbing alcohol a week, desperate to control the only thing she could: her body. I believe my grandmother was punished for her sensitivity, her mental illness, and not fulfilling society’s definitions of what a woman and wife should be. SWALLOW is a movie that examines the constraints of traditional gender roles.Carlo Mirabella-Davis, Director, Swallow
Pica doesn’t sound like the typical type of compulsion one might expect a Hollywood film to explore by “Swallow” does it brilliantly. This film is full of suspense, intrigue, and emotion. It completely captures your attention and you feel everything Hunter feels.
As we watch her spiral, the film gives us a poignant portrait of her inner self and the ache this suppressed self is seeking to solve by swallowing random household items. Haley Bennett is exceptional in her portrayal of Hunter, making us feel her pain and allowing us to hear her silent screams.
The film’s storyline masterfully unfolds and Hunter’s salvation is where you’d least expect it. “Swallow” is a cerebral film that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. There is not a moment where you will not be on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen next. Its formula is far from predictable and its underlying themes are quite provocative.
One of the core visual themes of SWALLOW is the image of a cracking façade; a veneer of normalcy with a fracture slowly forming on its surface. We used this image as a central motif in the camera direction and the production design. Thematically, this façade represents the world of white, patriarchal power and “success” that we are all taught to idealize as the apex of the American Dream. SWALLOW is a quasi-satirical critique of the top one percent and its malignant, patriarchal norms that are propagated throughout our government, corporations, society, and media. Hunter, our main character, has married into this masculine world of power and success, but because of her gender and working-class background, there’s something about this gilded cage that doesn’t sit right with her. She represses this disquiet under a plaintive smile until it threatens to undo her.Carlo Mirabella-Davis, Director, Swallow
On the surface, Hunter (Haley Bennett) appears to have it all. A newly pregnant housewife, she seems content to spend her time tending to an immaculate home and doting on her Ken-doll husband, Richie (Austin Stowell). However, as the pressure to meet her controlling in-laws and husband’s rigid expectations mounts, cracks begin to appear in her carefully created façade. Hunter develops a dangerous habit, and a dark secret from her past seeps out in the form of a disorder called pica – a condition that has her compulsively swallowing inedible, and oftentimes life-threatening, objects. A provocative and squirm-inducing psychological thriller, SWALLOW follows one woman’s unraveling as she struggles to reclaim independence in the face of an oppressive system by whatever means possible.
I’ve long been fascinated by gender norm enforcement because my own gender expression has been fluid throughout my life. Even though I currently present as a cis- gender man, I identified as a woman for much of my 20’s, wearing women’s clothing and using the name Emma Mirabella-Davis. Because I’ve been perceived by the world as both a woman and a man, I was able to bring a unique perspective to writing the role of Hunter while also understanding the mindset of her husband, Richie.
One of the core visual themes of SWALLOW is the image of a cracking façade; a veneer of normalcy with a fracture slowly forming on its surface. We used this image as a central motif in the camera direction and the production design. Thematically, this façade represents the world of white, patriarchal power and “success” that we are all taught to idealize as the apex of the American Dream. SWALLOW is a quasi-satirical critique of the top one percent and its malignant, patriarchal norms that are propagated throughout our government, corporations, society, and media. Hunter, our main character, has married into this masculine world of power and success, but because of her gender and working-class background, there’s something about this gilded cage that doesn’t sit right with her. She represses this disquiet under a plaintive smile until it threatens to undo her.
SWALLOW is about confronting demons, both internal and external, psychological and social. It is about the process of discovering your true self and gaining freedom from oppressive paradigms.Carlo Mirabella-Davis, Director, Swallow