Just be Yourself

‘I Am Maris’ an intimate film about strength, empathy

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Director Laura VanZee Taylor (left) and Maris Degener (right) smiling before their screening of “I Am Maris.” Photo by Christina Bulosan

Everyone wants to be liked, but what if one’s fear of not having control over that leads to serious health effects? How does one regain the strength to find happiness and acceptance in themselves physically and mentally?

For UC Santa Cruz third-year Maris Degener, the answer is yoga. In “I Am Maris,” director Laura VanZee Taylor brings Degener’s journey to the big screen in her first feature film, shown at the Santa Cruz Film Festival (SCFF) on Oct. 7. In the film, Taylor looks back through Degener’s anxiety, depression and eating disorder in high  school.

Before she decided to create a film, Taylor saw Degener’s paintings on Facebook portraying young women with solemn eyes and saddened faces. Taylor then began reading Degener’s blog, yogamaris.net, where she found Degener’s personal testimony of living with mental illness.

“Her writing was so poetic, so beautiful and so honest and vulnerable,” Taylor said. “[…] My whole plan was to just take her artwork and have it animated and then have her reading her blog […] and it just grew from  there.”

In the film, Taylor begins by interviewing Degener and her family regarding Degener’s journey of self acceptance. “I Am Maris” categorizes Degener’s process of recovery into two yoga poses — the child’s resting pose, showing her pain, and the strong spider pose, showing triumph. Throughout the film, Taylor includes Degener practicing yoga while she tells her story of overcoming self-doubt.

“Not only can someone with a mental illness and an eating disorder survive and heal,” Taylor said, “but that they can really thrive and lead an incredible life and have a huge impact on the world.”

Sofie Gao, an international student from China, showed her film “Cue Jane” at the SCFF. She watched “I Am Maris” because she was interested in Taylor’s work pertaining to the Visionary Women portion of the festival.

“This film is very meaningful and carries a very important message,” Gao said. “The director took a brave spirit, and decided to bring her story to life and encourage people.”

In “I Am Maris,” Taylor reveals Degener’s animated artwork while Degener narrates how she felt in states of anxiety and depression. Through this, the audience is able to see and hear how she incorporated her emotions in her paintings.

At 14, she found yoga after being hospitalized for anorexia. She was on bed rest, and begged her doctor to let her move. Once in the yoga studio, Degener found no mirrors, allowing her to emphasize how her body felt, not how it looked.

“I started picking up on all the things my teachers were really saying,” Degener said in an interview, “about stepping back and really noticing where the thoughts are going and questioning the way your mind twists things.”

She began to love herself again, and rather than causing harm to her body, she healed.

Her therapist noticed Degener’s art morph as she recovered.

“The concepts and the colors I was using went from being really dark, moody and brooding into lighter colors and becoming more vibrant,” Degener said. “[My art] was changing as I was changing.”

In “I Am Maris,” Degener shared her wounds to show we all face struggles. Today, Degener teaches yoga on campus and continues to share her positive message.

“When I write it is a creation for me. It’s actually bringing something into reality,” said Degener. “I am unburdened by perfection when I’m creating.”