If you want to make a film with mass appeal, Ma is probably not the one you're going to make. It's a silent, modern retelling of the Virgin Mary's biblical pilgrimage that replaces dialogue with dance. Director Celia Rowlson-Hall stars in the lead role as a sun-kissed and freckled Mary who inexplicably emerges from the New Mexico desert, as if conceived miraculously by the sand dunes, and meets her contemporary Joseph on an asphalt road.
In a motel room bathtub, Mary experiences her immaculate pregnancy, which Hall narrates not with words but with painstakingly choreographed movements of her body. The scene ends when the walls of her room fall away, and she find herself on a bed in the middle of the desert, surrounded by men dressed in Wild West costumes. The conception sets the tone for the rest of the film, a surreal, metaphor-laden journey to Las Vegas, where she finds refuge among showgirls and prostitutes.
It's a weird, wonderful film, and one that will certainly polarize audiences. Hall initially had trouble getting funding for the project, but eventually found an audience for it on Kickstarter. After its debut at the Venice Film Festival this month, Ma is generating praise from the industry's critical ranks. Variety called it one of the year's "most original debuts."
When I was little, I really wanted to be Jesus when I grew up, because I really wanted the ability to heal people. Then I had this moment when I was a kid, where I was like, Wait, I can't be Jesus because I'm not a boy.
VICE: What was the reception like at the Venice Film Festival?
Celia Rowlson-Hall: I would say about 15 percent of my audience left. Riel [Roch Decter, Ma producer] told me, "Every seat I heard flip up empty, I felt like it was an even greater testament to the strength of the film, because if you're not making something that either makes people feel one way or the other, then why are you doing it?" I was dying inside. I think it's going to be a challenge to moviegoers no matter where we go with the film.
What does dancing convey to you that dialogue would be incapable of getting across?
I'm first and foremost a dancer. Choreography is the language I've been working in and crafting. I set out to tell a story without dialogue and I wanted to see if I could do it. It was an experiment and an exploration. But I feel comfortable in the language of movement and metaphor. It was an incredible challenge and maybe my next challenge is going to be using dialogue. I've never really done that.
This is a silent film, but you do use a lot of sound throughout the film, even if you don't employ dialogue. How did you craft the sound design for the film?
With the sound design, I wanted to make sure we heard each room or atmosphere as another character. I wanted it to feel alive. The clicking of the fan, or the bathroom light—we made everything sound a little bit broken. I used the breath of the two characters as the soundtrack to the film. I wanted to make a quiet film, something that is so quiet that their breath feels loud. I think you can learn a lot about where your characters are at emotionally by the way they're breathing. Is it a shallow breath? Is it a deep breath? Is it quick? If you watch it again, you'll probably only pay attention to that.
Then I really wanted to employ the sounds of the gong, because the gong is one of the first instruments ever made. What's cool is that it doesn't have a decay, like a piano key does or a guitar string. It decays into silence at an even ratio. It almost loops back on itself and it sort of recycles the sound. What it does is trick the mind because you can't follow the decay. That's why the gong is one of the only instruments that gets you past that common sense part of your brain. It takes you into a more subconscious state. The reason the film has 30 seconds of gong at the beginning—you're about to go on a journey that's not your common sense, linear, practical world. Wash that part away and go into a world where the expectations are different.
The woman's body, to me, is the most powerful thing on Earth and the most powerless thing on Earth.
A lot of the images you use to build the world inside Ma evoke some biblical iconography, like the shot of you wearing the white towel on your head, but also iconography of the American southwest, like the shots of the motel. What's your relationship to New Mexico and Las Vegas?
I grew up in the woods on the water, so the desert was not really what I grew up in or with. But, you know, I thought of this as the journey story of a lonesome cowboy or cowgirl. I wanted it to feel super Americana. When I think of American filmmaking, I think of Westerns and I think of mafia and mob movies. It's the same reason I use the Mother Mary as a departure point for her character. You know the location. You know the character. And then I get to blow the lid on it a little bit. However, I wanted to start with something very accessible.
The desert is harsh. It's this harsh landscape where it's almost impossible to survive. How long has she been here? How has she been living? The beauty of the desert is that it's teeming with life, but it really does feel dead and unforgiving.
Which came first: the journey story or the Mother Mary story?
What I set out to do was to create a female hero's journey. I wanted to see a women go on a journey. I knew that was going to be very important for me. I also can't help being influenced by my past. When I was little, I really wanted to be Jesus when I grew up, because I really wanted the ability to heal people and to help people out of pain. Then I had this moment, probably when I was a kid, where I was like, wait, I can't be Jesus because I'm not a boy. I have to be the Virgin Mary and I'm going to have to bring into the world the child that can save us all. But I can't save anybody because I'm a woman.
One thing that bothered me as a kid was that we have an entire New Testament on Jesus, but we have a paragraph on Mary. We don't know anything about Mary. Here is the single-most important woman in the Western world and we know nothing about her. The next question is: Do we care? Is she basically just the vessel for this man, this carrier? A big question I'm really asking in this film is, what is this concept of virgin and virginity as your highest self, before you're touched? The idea of immaculate conception is huge. So God touches you and you have no control? You're just waiting for this power to infuse you with child and you have no say in the game? The woman's body, to me, is the most powerful thing on Earth and the most powerless thing on Earth. I think it is a lifelong journey to keep settling, sinking, and grounding into that power and taking that back. That was a lot of what I had to learn in this movie myself.
I can see this film being taught in a gender studies class. You're clearly offering a gendered critique of the Biblical story. Were you trying to make a statement at all?
No. I never really try to make statements. I'm asking questions. I really am. I'm pushing back against everything that's been pushed on me societally, especially when it comes to gender normatives and binaries, and what it is to be a woman in this society, your roles, your expectations. It's honestly just me trying to make sense of the world that I live in. If I had my answers, then what I would be giving to the audience is something that felt dead. I want to be questioning a lot with my audience. I want the movies I create to be just as challenging for the audience as they are for me, because I think we have to work to get to the other side, to find an answer. I'm not here to numb you, to placate you, or to help you forget your current life. I want to remind you and attempt to go a little deeper. Hence, 15 percent walkout.
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