Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes on How Belle Gibson Influenced Aussie Horror Flick ‘Sissy’

aisha dee sissy

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the film Sissy.

From Wolf Creek to The Loved Ones, there’s just something about Australian horror that makes it uniquely Australian, and now, filmmakers Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes present: Sissy.

Sissy celebrated its global premiere at South By Southwest earlier this year, where it impressed critics and was quickly picked up by horror streaming platform Shudder.

The film follows Cecilia (Aisha Dee), an influencer (or “mental health advocate”) who runs into her tween-age bestie Emma (Barlow) at the chemist one day. The two had pledged to grow old together, until Alex (Emily de Margheriti) arrived on the scene.

After a brief, awkward interaction, the pair soon reconnect, and Emma invites Cecilia (and don’t call her Sissy) to join her on her upcoming hens weekend. The catch? Alex is there, and seemingly committed to not letting Cecilia move past their past.

The film is a scathing satire of social media wellness influencers, and while talking to The Latch over Zoom, Barlow and Senes — who co-wrote and directed the film together — said that there was one specific influencer that inspired the film: Belle Gibson. Gibson once claimed to have cured her terminal brain cancer with whole foods and a healthy lifestyle, before her lies were exposed — she never had cancer, and as of 2020, owed over $500,000 in outstanding court fines.

“Belle Gibson was a massive influence for Sissy, just kind of watching the Australian media skewer her, and rightfully so,” Barlow said. “But looking at her downfall kind of led us to thinking about how people like that slip through the cracks, and take advantage of vulnerable communities like the cancer community.

“But also, I have a couple of friends who are influencers, and I was observing their career trajectories, fascinated, having insight into how they commodify themselves,” Barlow added. “And I found myself judging them quite a bit. And then I wondered why, because it’s quite a cool modern profession, but we all hate them for it.”

With five nieces, Barlow and Senes found themselves questioning influencer culture as a whole.

“Who put these people in those positions of power to be able to influence such young minds and become the new celebrities of our age?” Senes asked, noting that for many influencers, they’ve never had to “prove themselves”.

“It’s kind of like they created their own identities just with their phone… and that was a modern phenomenon… when we were writing it in 2018, it hadn’t really been that explored,” he explained.

With “this influx of social media related films” we’ve seen in recent years (Bodies Bodies Bodies, Ingrid Goes West and Not Okay spring to mind), Senes is happy to be “part of a generation of filmmakers who are concerned about this stuff”.

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In the film, we watch as Cecilia gets #triggered, and tries to centre herself using the methods she preaches to her followers: She grabs her bespoke, non-allergenic therapy ropes and tries to create a safe space for herself. Spoilers, it does not work, but it begged the question: how much of what Cecilia is selling does Cecilia herself buy into?

“That is a good question, and one that no one has asked,” Barlow said. “I’ve thought about it quite a bit — like how much is she actually genuinely practicing the methods that she’s preaching?

“I don’t know about you, but sometimes I do things and I feel really good about myself because at least I’ve just shown up and I’m doing it,” she continued. “Like meditation. I’m such a superficial meditator, I have no practice whatsoever, it’s just a just a tick off the check list.”

Barlow imagines that for Cecilia, “her practice is very superficial” and more for the followers than any real sense of peace.

“She’s seeking community and she’s seeking love and approval from the void, and that’s why she’s practicing,” she said. “But I don’t think she’s actually leaning into that herself.”

Senes agreed.

“In the very last scene when she’s doing her final video post and she says, ‘I had to practice what I preach to get through this massacre’, I think right there is the evidence; we know that everything she’s saying is a lie,” he said. “I don’t think she’s really practicing it at all. I think it’s just a means to an end.”

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The film ends on a high note for Cecilia. Having gotten away with the massacre, she has millions of followers, has a book, and is more successful than ever. In a world where scammers are very much having a moment in pop culture, it seems there are endless possibilities for a Sissy sequel, and it’s something that Barlow and Senes have discussed.

“Maybe by the end of the sequel she gets outed,” Barlow mused. “We don’t know. But I feel like there’s a film where she really capitalises on the book … before the downfall.”

One thing that would likely feature in the sequel, Barlow said, is more information about Cecilia’s journey from after the incident with Alex up to the point where we meet her in Sissy as an influencer with 200,000 followers.

“We have theories about what happened in the intervening years, and I think if we were ever to do a sequel, we would reveal those theories in tidbits,” she said. “So I don’t wanna give too much away about backstory, ’cause it’s like, we’re gonna be using that as material for the next one, if there is one!”

Going back to Belle Gibson, Senes said that an earlier draft of Sissy was “bookended by a 60 Minutes type of show”, a la Gibson’s own interview with Tara Brown, pink sweater and all.

“We were so inspired by that until we realised that we didn’t need to make it that overt,” Senes said.

Should Sissy 2 become a reality, Senes said that it would “have to address the idea of cancellation”.

“It’s hard to avoid when you’re an influencer, because that’s your worst nightmare,” he said. “It’s almost worse than death. So I think that would play a factor, but where we just can’t say how much yet.”

“All we can say is that it’s Sissy: The Following,” Barlow teased, adding: “It would be cool to make that movie, but we need a break from Sissy.”

“But people out there can demand it!” Senes said. “We live in the age of fan culture, so it could well happen. We just need people to fly the Sissy flag!” he laughed.

Sissy is in cinemas now.

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