Interview with Celia Rowlson-Hall (director of MA)

A 'desert-bound biblical ode' and a modern-day vision of mother Mary’s pilgrimage — New York filmmaker Celia Rowlson-Hall screens her feature film titled MA at IFFR 2016 as part of gender(dot)net. As a woman crosses the scorched landscape of the American Southwest — her story told entirely through movement, bolstered by the artist’s choreography background — the film playfully deconstructs the role of the woman, who encounters a world full of bold characters. A journey into the visceral and the surreal, interweaving ritual, performance, and the body as sculpture.

By Glamcult

Could you tell us a bit about how your passion for filmmaking evolved?

I moved to New York to be a dancer/choreographer and worked in concert theatre until I was asked to choreograph a music video for MGMT. The moment I walked onto set I had a strong feeling that I was home, and fell in love with the process of filmmaking immediately. I loved 'going for broke' for twelve hours straight, but at the end of the day you have a tangible something, which is so exciting. Live performance is so ephemeral, so I was drawn to film, because at the core I am a very nostalgic person and want things to last forever.

Once I realized that this was the medium I wanted to work in, I began to explore how to bring my understanding of dance and movement to this new form. I also quickly realized that dance shouldn’t just be a supplemental means of expression in film — which is the way it is most often used — but I can make it the sole expression. So I aimed to create films where the movement was so full and clear, where words weren't necessary. There has been a lot of trial and error in this process; figuring out what translates and what does not. But it is exciting, and so far so good; the passion is only growing.

How was the idea for MA born? Could you set the vision and narrative for us?

I used the Virgin Mother as a jumping off point visually, since I would be telling this story without words. And I wanted the audience to clearly understand that she was a virgin, coming from the desert, a seemingly unlivable landscape, and entering the world of man, with a mission to bring forth a savior. But what I really set out to do through this is tell the story of ‘every woman’, and so I gave forth my version of what it is like to be a woman in this world. I pulled from personal experience and told it through the lens of Ma, who is interacting with the world around her for the first time.

This story was also of personal interest in the sense that I come from quite a religious household, and when I was very young I wanted to grow up to be Jesus. I wanted the ability to heal people. But then I realized that I could never be Jesus because I was a girl, and thus became fascinated with Mary. I became obsessed with virginity and believed that if I held onto it, then I could be the one to bring forth a savior. Yet, as I read the Bible, I was perplexed by how little information there is about Mary. She pretty much appears out of nowhere, gives birth to Jesus, and then disappears again. As an adult, I took the liberty to create my own narrative for her: so I wrote MA. And I conceived of this film from a place of extremes that one does when exploring myth and religion — extreme hope, extreme violence, extreme naiveté, extreme pain, extreme wanting.

[interview continues below]

Get tickets to MA

How did you come up with the film title MA?

MA is a common term for mother, and when babies cry it sounds like 'maaaaaa'. And I wanted to tell this story about any mother, but as expressed through 'the mother'. I was traveling in India while conceiving of this film, and while in a temple saw 'MA MA MA' written out in pebbles. I thought to myself: MA is definitely the name of the film. And then I learned that Ma (間) is a Japanese word which can be translated as 'gap', 'space', 'pause' or 'the space between two structural parts'. I found the second discovery of this word to be so serendipitous and true to the meaning of my film.

Could you talk about the conflict when putting the idea of gang rape and Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception in the same story?

Well, I wanted to put Ma in two totally disparate situations and for the audience to choose whether they believe this baby is the outcome of one of the most violent and heinous crimes, gang rape, or is this child immaculately conceived and a child of God. Another thing that I was exploring in this scene is that she is raped right before there is the first discovery of her sexuality, which was important for me to convey because in so many rapes, it is assumed the woman ‘asked’ for it. I find this to be so heartbreaking. Also, the idea of a woman waiting for God to grant her this child is also gray for me because still, like the rape, she has no control. No matter how you see it, the woman still has no control. 

The idea for this film originally came out of an obsession you had with Jesus, though you felt you couldn’t play the role of Jesus because you are a girl. Why did you feel you couldn’t play Jesus? To what extent do you feel people feel bound by gender expression?

As a kid, this recognition that I couldn't be Jesus was very matter of fact. Jesus was a boy, I was a girl, end of story — I can't be Jesus. I thought gender meant everything. I feel that all people struggle with gender expression, whether they are aware or not, because the societal norms and stereotypes are so deep, so marbled into the psyche of our culture that its hard to uproot and examine them. That said, we’re in the process of this on a cultural level as we speak: we see it in the media, in the world of entertainment... large stores in the US are taking out the "pink isles" for girls because boys like pink too. It's radical and exciting and I embrace the much-needed change. I celebrate the pioneers who pushed against these gender confinements before it was safe. They make it easier for us to keep finding rigidly defined parameters and pushing past them.

gender(dot)net is a programme of International Film Festival Rotterdam, taking place from the 27th of January until the 7th of February 2016. Glamcult will keep you updated on the programme and explore its inspirational subject matter.