You’re a choreographer and filmmaker who wants to make a silent film that reinterprets Mother Mary’s pilgrimage in the American Southwest landscape. Where do you get some funding? If you’re Celia Rowlson-Hall, you turn to Kickstarter.
In a show of faith that the New York-based artist describes as “wonderful and overwhelming,” her online community--including fans of her unique short film work, which she shares online--contributed more than $53,000 to help bring her debut feature, called Ma, to life.
“It was so humbling and exciting,” says Rowlson-Hall, a Virginia native who graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts, began her career as a dancer, moved to New York and went on to choreograph videos for MGMT, Sleigh Bells and Chromeo and direct more than 50 short films. [She’s also collaborated with directors Lena Dunham and Gaspar Noé.]
“Thank goodness I’m making work at this time period when one, we’re digital, and two, we can crowd-source. A lot of people were like, ‘You know what? I don’t know what the heck you’re about to make but you’re so passionate about making it that I’m going to support that.’ It was that same scrappy energy to get the money together that continued into making the movie and finishing it.”
Written and directed by Rowlson-Hall, who also stars alongside collaborator Andrew Pastides, Ma premiered at the 2015 Venice Days film festival.
Like much of Rowlson-Hall’s bold, intimate, and often fun and kooky work, Ma explores some universal struggles with which the filmmaker grapples--as do so many of us. “To be quite honest, I make films not only for others but I’m making them for myself and to document my own journey as an artist and a woman in this world,” she says. “A lot of my films are me questioning what I’m coming up against in my life, and I figure out how to create my own artistic interpretation on top of that… they are personal and intimate and I do feel very naked when I do share them!”
Just take a gander at her shorts. While most contemporary North American cinema tends to focus on dialogue, Rowlson-Hall relies on the body and movement to tell her stories, many of which are intimate explorations of character and archetype.
“I call dance my first language,” she explains. “Even when I was five years old, I was making up dances to tell stories. I feel much more comfortable expressing through movement, so for me it seems so natural but I realize it is absolutely challenging for audiences to receive information in a different way than we’re used to, especially people who maybe aren’t so connected to their bodies, by watching the different characters I am and their relationship to their bodies. Especially in Ma, it’s really about this one body in space that is changeable and can be affected and loved and attacked and everything else.”
She hopes her work makes people “feel something,” while inspiring others to make their own stuff. “That would bring me absolute joy.”
Whether as artist or viewer, vulnerability is somehow always worth the risk. As an audience member, she says, “I don’t want to be given some generic point of view, I want to see the person telling me what they’re battling with on the inside… that’s why I want to take risks myself in expressing what’s going on inside of me.”
What, then, are the struggles embodied by Ma’s title character? “What I’m most trying to figure out is, what’s my relationship to myself, to God or no God, to man and to woman and to nature,” she offers. “I use the iconic imagery of a Virgin Mary because I’m not using dialogue, but it’s more of an expression of virginity in its many layers and complications… this woman is a blank slate entering this world, and by the end of the film, she’s coloured with all these experiences. We all come onto this earth as blank slates, and then we’re coloured, we get our stories. We create some of it and some of it happens to us, so I’m giving my abstract representation of that and taking this woman as a jumping-off point. She’s every woman, in my opinion.”
Certainly, we can all relate to being transformed by life experience, sometimes in ways we could never have imagined, often to the disapproval of others and ourselves. “You’re sort of expected to be one thing,” muses this multi-disciplinary artist. “It’s hard, you’ve got to break your own heart and break your own form of who you thought you were, and the thing is, we are ever changing. But that shift into whatever the next self is, is the challenge, I think… and Ma faces a lot of challenges.”
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