MA, screening in AFI FEST’s Breakthrough section, is a modern-day retelling of Mother Mary’s pilgrimage. With a background in choreography, director and star Celia Rowlson–Hall envisions the Virgin figure as a lanky, lonely woman who emerges from the desert. She meets a man, and they spend the next few days acting out hyperbolic representations of masculinity, femininity, aggression and submission within a roadside motel room.
AFI: What drew you to retelling Mother Mary’s pilgrimage?
Celia Rowlson-Hall: Mary’s story in the Bible is so sparse, so I wanted to take this iconic figure and create my own narrative for her. I used Mary’s image and the concepts surrounding her as a jumping-off point for this story, but really I am telling the story of a woman who enters this world, and how she learns to live in it.
Ma emerges from nature and walks onto the road, asking to be taken into the world. She is a virgin in every sense and everything she experiences will leave an impression and form her. I wanted to address her virginity to then explore the duality of Ma’s experiences with sex: Immaculate Conception and gang rape. Opposite ends of the spectrum, and she has no say in either. I wanted to explore how these events change her. One question that was in the forefront of my mind in telling this story was, if one can never get back to “pure,” where does one go?
It was important for me to retell this pilgrimage because I grappled with a deranged idealism of virginity for so long. Virginity to me was a wholesomeness and perfection. When I was young, it was so important to me, it kept me connected to God, to my parents, it kept me a child — I trusted that life would turn out okay if I stayed pure. But what happens when one grows up?
Your film is dialogue-free, which is a brave move for a debut feature. Talk about this decision, and why it was important to the film.
I have been working for years on creating my own form of performance-filmmaking that doesn’t use dialogue, but pushes the story with movement and imagery, and I wanted to explore this in feature-length form. In another respect, there are no words in this film because I don’t always have words for what I am feeling and for what I am figuring out in the film and in life. Movement is my first language, the one in which I’m most natural, and I knew that my first feature film would truly be my chance at creating something so specifically “me,” and made in the way I want to tell stories. I knew there was a risk of it not working, but I wanted to try it anyway. I needed to try it for my own growth.
I also think that words can limit the emotion. I remember hearing once that “speech is for friends, whisper for lovers and silence for god.” And since this story is about a woman attempting to stay in communication with God while interacting with the world, with man, with love, with desire, it only made sense that there were no words, only breath.
You have a background in choreography, and physical movement is central to this film. Did you experience challenges directing your actors through some of the more physically rigorous sequences?
The main thing I need from actors is trust, because while shooting, a lot of it doesn’t feel like it makes much sense. The “sense” comes in the edit. So the actors and dancers that I asked to be in the film, I chose for their physical sensibilities, generous spirits and willingness to commit. I knew they would be up for the challenge.
I like to give physical direction that is so challenging that there is only room for execution. For example: hauling a dresser drawer through sand dunes on your hands and knees. If one commits to the physical action, then there is nothing else to worry about — the body speaks all the truth.
When working with Andrew Pastides, who plays the character Daniel, we have worked together so intensely for over a decade now, that often directing gives way to simply existing in the scene together, and trusting in our language.
Talk about your collaboration with Ian Bloom, who creates the excellent cinematography of MA.
Ian is a genius and more importantly one of the most dedicated collaborators I have ever had the honor to work with. We have been working together for over five years now, and so we too have our own language in working together, which is essential as I have performed in the majority of our collaborations. There is such a profound trust that I can feel free to be in the piece, as I’ve really done the directing in the prep, and then trust his ability to bring out my vision, while I continue to push myself.
Ian and I knew it was imperative that we were on the same page before going into production so that I could focus on my performance. Incredible amounts of time were spent on camera tests, lens tests, storyboarding and observed rehearsals so that there weren’t any questions on set. We could simply execute the plan.
You play the lead role of Ma. What are some of the challenges and high points of directing and performing in a film simultaneously?
The challenge is performing and directing simultaneously, however the high point is that the vision I create stays intact. With work like mine that is so conceptual and visual, I needed to be the lead in this, so the other collaborators, crew and actors could get a sense of my style of storytelling. I believe that I explain best by doing.
I know how to use all of me and so I do, but I don’t know how to use all of other people, yet. That is something I am excited to explore and learn in my next film, as I plan not to be in it, and challenge myself to pull what I have always pulled out of myself out of other people.
MA plays AFI FEST in the Breakthrough section on November 8 and 9.