Examining the nature of difference in BOUND BY FLESH

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Unusual entertainment has always fallen under particular scrutiny from the public eye. We try to determine what is truly full of wonder and what is spectacle. Historically, we’ve often failed to recognize the difference. Some rare performers and works of art manage to be both. The Hilton Sisters were those rare performers. In her new film, Bound By Flesh, Leslie Zemeckis explores the lives, talents and tragedies of Daisy and Violet Hilton. And while it is not always an easily line to walk, Zemeckis avoids any temptation to display the women as anything but human.

Following the journey from their 1908 birth in Brighton, UK to their death in a small North Carolina community, the film shows the sisters life-long effort to find love, friends and acceptance. The women were sold by their birth mother, held at an arm’s length by the woman who bought them and taken advantage of by nearly every man who managed their career.  If there was to be any foil for The Hilton Sisters’ heroics, it was Meyer Meyers, who managed and “cared for” the women after the death of their “Aunite,” who had purchased them from their birth mother. Meyers threatened to institutionalize the women if they left or rebelled against anything he asked. Under Meyers, they were kept from any sort of education or friendships until their early twenties when, after finally gaining emancipation from Meyers, they tried to make up for lost time, only to enter a period of failed romances and alcoholism. Yet, through it all, Daisy and Violet never gave up on trying to interact with the world around them. After their show business days were behind them, they worked in a grocery store and were active members of their local church.

Zemeckis does an excellent job at presenting the complexity of the sisters’ lives. Their goddaughter is especially candid in the film, saying that all the “freaks” from this era were very lonely and sad people, while still fondly recalling the joy the sisters’ performances brought them. Sideshow legend Ward Hall goes on to proclaim that everyone he knew in “the business,” including The Hilton Sisters, unconditionally wished they could return to the life, long after sideshows had fallen out of favor with the politically correct culture.

The profundity of the film lies in the examination of the nature of difference and how we respond to those who own that difference in ways that we applaud or jeer. Are those who are different part of the collective conscious that changes the way a culture responds to them? Or like so many of their other experiences, are they left on the outside only later to be told what we decided in matters that more directly affect them than any of us? The fact that this film goes deeper than the surface exploration of exploitation makes it the best documentary I have seen thus far this year.

In an era where American entertainment has greatly become homogenized and frankly bland, Bound By Flesh reminds us that there was a time when this country produced the “greatest shows on earth.” We didn’t facsimile or photocopy other people’s lives only to place them on YouTube, but we created experiences that stayed with people for the rest of their lives.

Bound By Flesh can currently be seen in theaters in Los Angeles and New York and premieres June 27, 2014 on IFC. More information can be found at http://www.boundbyflesh.com/

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