The Handmaiden of the Lord

Heresy, heatstroke, and the insurgent feminism of MA

Standing on the parched slopes of Strawberry Peak, dressed in a long-sleeved, blue leotard, Celia Rowlson-Hall stares at her bare feet. The 31-year-old director of the wordless, surrealist, and eminently entertaining MA— which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September—is trying to express how it feels to have finished her first feature film. The dirt around her, covered in a pale, fur-like moss that emerged in the Angeles National Forest during California’s four-year drought, is as soft as wool carpet, and coruscates like satin in the dusk light. Around Rowlson-Hall’s shoulders hang three yards of blue fabric, which she pulls tight to her thin frame. Then she begins to run in place.

At first, with the board-straight posture of a woman who’s danced since childhood, she jogs at a moderate pace. But after a minute, she speeds up, lifting her knees higher and higher, like a sprinter warming up beside the blocks: her arms pumping madly, her breathing hard and sharp in the mountain air. And then gradually, as if pressed by a building wind, she slides backward. Sixty feet behind her, the ledge on which she’s dancing drops off at a seventy per- cent grade toward the remnants of Josephine Creek 1,200 feet below. But as she approaches the threshold, she continues to accelerate.

This metaphor for the promotion of her creative work—running in place like a madwoman with her head held high, then losing ground, slipping toward a fatal dropoff—distills into a single, evolving gesture the complexion of Rowlson-Hall’s work: a razor sharp wit con- joined to tragedy via a membrane of grace and beauty. It also illustrates, succinctly, the slog of the contemporary artist-as-entrepreneur, ever creating, and ever promoting. When I met Rowlson-Hall the day before the North American premiere of MA at AFI FEST—where the film would win the Breakthrough Audience Award—she’d been in California a total of two hours. Her plane from New York had landed late at LAX, giving her just enough time to drop off her bags in Hollywood before we spirited her an hour north to the arid Angeles Crest. But there she was, in the golden light of sunset, responding gamely to a litany of complicated questions using only movement and gesture, as the temperature dropped into the 40s.

celia-insta (1)

A dialogue-free, expressionistic reimagining of Mary’s imperiled journey through the desert to deliver Jesus, MA is the sort of film that—on paper—seems dauntingly self-serious and oppressive. But full of humor, horror, ex- plosive movement, and exquisite, painterly compositions, MA moves swiftly from one emotional and aesthetic revelation to the next.

And still, perhaps unsurprisingly, some conservative audiences have found the work too provocative to tolerate. At its World Premiere in Venice, for instance, nearly a third of the crowd walked out. Almost all of them were men.

“That was hard,” admits Rowlson-Hall as she cups a mug of coffee in the Roosevelt Hotel’s restaurant the morning after the mountain photo shoot. “My executive producer Riel [Roch Decter] was sitting next to me and he said afterward, ‘Every seat I heard pop up was a victory in my book.’ He meant that it proves that you’re making something that people are reacting to.”

Though it’s brutal for any filmmaker to endure dissent, Rowlson-Hall’s perspective has broadened. Determined as she was to tell an emotionally associative story, exclusively on her own terms, about what it’s like for a woman to make her way in the world, it was almost fitting that in addition to Venice, beginning with MA’s first work-in-progress screening at MoMA’s PS1 last spring, older white men have yawned throughout the film—as if in collusion. “I was sitting in the back of the theatre, dying,” Rowlson-Hall remembers. “But it was also hilarious, and it made me realize I need to make more films.”

“Back when we were testing out the movie,” she continues in her faint Virginia drawl, “I remember a [male] friend of mine told me that it was painful to feel [Mary’s] pain. His girlfriend responded, ‘Yeah, that’s what it’s like to be a fucking woman!’ I address this a bit in the film, how the only way Mary feels like she can survive and continue her journey is if she assumes the [aesthetic] of a man; looking like a woman won’t get her to the finish line.”

The fluidity of identity in MA—as it is in most of Rowlson-Hall’s movement-based video work that constantly stretches gender and identity—ex- pressed through rapid changes in costume and gesture, can be unsettling for people whose identification with a female character is rooted in her constancy. But that concept of the static soubrette is precisely what she’s work- ing to disrupt.

“I think men have incredible, straightforward focus.” Rowlson-Hall tells me, “And women, we see in circles. There are different strengths to both perspectives, but a woman must see behind her and to the sides—as well as in front. It’s because we bear children. You’ve got to be in the house, but you also have to know where your children are outside. It’s in our DNA.”

celia-002-edit

Celia Rowlson-Hall began dancing at the age of five. When she wasn’t studying ballet at the studio, she was inventing dances and putting on im- provised shows at home. She continued training throughout high school, and then when she enrolled at the North Carolina School for the Arts—where she majored in dance—she began choreographing for the stage.

But it wasn’t until a few years later, as she was trying to establish herself as a performer in New York, that she was invited to collaborate on a music video. She was on set, watching the various departments working in harmony during a hectic, 12- hour shoot, when a feeling of intense new energy surged through her.

“It suddenly felt like home for me,” she says. “I would spend so [much time] slaving away for a weekend show, but then it would be gone. I guess the sentimental part of me wanted something forever.” And film was the solution: the medium that made the ephemeral nature of live performance permanent.

The timing was perfect for Rowlson-Hall. In the mid ‘00s in New York City, with high-quality, affordable digital production and dissemination technology suddenly available, and with a subject—her own body in motion—that she had unlimited access to, she worked incessantly. Shooting first on a Panasonic HVX, then later on various Canon DSLRs, Rowlson-Hall began uploading her dance films to Vimeo. By the end of the decade, she had made digital shorts for Vogue, Glamour, for fashion brands such as Kate Spade and Rachel Antonoff, had choreographed for bands as big as MGMT and Chromeo, and directors as celebrated as Lena Dunham and Gaspar Noé.

In other words, she had carved out for herself the sort of career—and living—that most film- makers never glimpse. But, as she puts it, something inside her kept “banging around”: a feature film that had haunted her since long before she moved to New York.

MA came from so many parts of my life,” she says, staring off almost in a trance. “I wanted to make a film about the female hero’s journey, about the end of the beginning. We always start with the baby [Jesus] on the doorstep or in the bulrushes. What about his mother? I wanted to know her journey and what it is to be a mother, to be a vessel for this being.”

Rowlson-Hall, hand-to-stomach, describes how the film had been with her as long as she could remember. “It was asking to escape,” she recalls. “And it was painful. I remember telling someone that I was going to die if I didn’t make this movie. Of course they said, ‘Well, that’s a little dramatic; it’s just a film,’ but it was more than that for me.”

During production she would prove, to herself and her crew, just how vital the work was to her. Twenty-two days into principle photography in the deserts of California, Arizona, and Nevada, the film nearly turned deadly. Forty-eight hours before the end of filming, Rowlson-Hall and producer Aaron Schnobrich succumbed to heatstroke and were rushed to the hospital.

“I was vomiting bile, and these guttural screams were coming out of me,” she remembers. “Aaron was speaking in tongues and foaming at the mouth. It was very intense. Then I had this true moment of clarity and remember saying to myself—and in the third person— ‘Good job, Celia, you dug deep.’ I felt like I’d dug in a way that I have always craved to dig. That shovel hit rock bottom. I had emptied myself emotionally and physically. Literally everything was out of me.”

Rowlson-Hall’s partner and collaborator, Andrew Pastides—who stars opposite her in the film in the role of Daniel—had to take over directing the final scenes while she recuperated. They completed production on time and within their $53,000 crowdfunded budget. But the experience was sobering. “I’m doing my next film at home,” Rowlson-Hall laughs, only half joking.

“When we were out there in the desert, we knew no one. We couldn’t ask for any favors. It was so hard. Now I understand why many filmmakers make their [first features] at home. It’s just easier.”

celia-016-edit

Growing up in Urbanna, Virginia as the only child of two public education teachers in a relaxed Christian household, Rowlson-Hall rarely felt relaxed. She was so sensitive to the natural world that she circulated her own “Save the Earth” newspaper, and started a school club by the same name. When her parents read her nature books, they had to staple shut the sections that discussed endangered species or poaching—to keep her from descending into a panic.

When she was eight years old, Rowlson-Hall reached what was, for her, the logical conclusion of a religious girl who feels deeply sensitive to pain and suffering: She needed to grow up to be Jesus. “I wanted to heal people,” she says. “Death and illness, pain, it all really freaked me out. But if I were just Jesus, I could heal these things. I could make people better.”

When Rowlson-Hall realized that she couldn’t, in fact, become Jesus, she grew obsessed with giving birth to him. And because there’s only one passage describing Mary in the Bible, Rowlson-Hall had the freedom to proj- ect herself into that textual void. She became obsessed with virginity and pu- rity, and as she moved into her teens, remained terrified of sex.

“Those sort of ideals and beliefs don’t bode well in real life, though,” she half-laughs. “You hit a point where it just doesn’t work. I was coming to terms with that right around 14 or 15. I’d had so many experiences already where I felt like an immense failure—like not ever being able to heal someone, or not getting to be Mary, or realizing I was never going to be a professional ballerina. I had all these feelings that life was already over and I hadn’t even finished my teens yet.”

This sense of crippling shame for failing to do the impossible is one of the paradoxes that ultimately pushed Rowlson-Hall away from Christianity. It’s also the central conflict driving MA. As Rowlson-Hall’s sees it, Immaculate Conception represents the pinnacle of losing control—a divine act in which a woman’s body, without her consent, becomes the vessel for delivering God’s son. Christ is inserted into her, and she has no choice but to bear him.

In what will doubtless remain the most controversial sequence in the film, Mary’s conception isn’t immaculate. She’s raped. And she’s raped, not by “creepy men in an alleyway,” as Rowlson-Hall puts it, but by a group of “men in incred- ible positions of power and respect.” Assaulted by, amongst others, a soldier and a police officer, Rowlson-Hall explains that “not feeling safe [amidst the men in power in our lives] is something that I’ve always grappled with. So I wanted to explore the idea that the people here to help you—to save you—are raping you instead.”

Many of the men (and doubtless some women) who have walked out during screenings have been unwilling to engage with MA at its most brutal and, arguably, heretical. Others have simply rejected the film’s absence of dialogue. But Rowlson-Hall’s reasons for not including spoken language in her film—save for a few groans or cries—aren’t intended to offend the audience’s sensibilities. Rather, she feels that she can more efficiently and creatively express what she wants to say through movement and images than she can through words. Perhaps more importantly, though, Rowlson-Hall didn’t want Mary to speak in her film.

“I don’t think she talks,” says Rowlson-Hall. “I don’t think she uses the English language. I needed to create someone who was as mystical as possible, and if she had dialogue she would be human and I wanted her to be something else.”

Originally, Rowlson-Hall had lines for Daniel, since he is, ostensibly, an actor traveling to Hollywood. But every time she looked at that dialogue written on the page, she’d think, “I can express what I’m trying to say here in this line through this simple action,” and so she and Pastides kept dis- tilling Daniel’s language into the purest possible movements until his dialogue disappeared, too.

“Daniel listens to music that has words in it before he meets Mary,” explains Rowlson-Hall. “When he gets pulled into her world all the sounds, songs and everything disappear. I like the idea that there’s a lot of magnetism, push and pull, between these characters. Then once he proposes to Mary, it’s the first time we feel human love—and once again we can hear lyrics from the songs on the radio. When Mary brings Daniel into her world, there’s no language. But when he’s bringing her into his world, there is.”

Rowlson-Hall is intensely aware that her interpretations, recontextualizations, and revisions of Mary’s story will be seen as sacrilegious in the eyes of many traditional Christians. But her views on Christianity and religion continue to vex her. While her upbringing was religious, she doesn’t feel that she’s breaking free from something her parents imposed on her. Rather, she’s adamant that a lot of the guilt and shame that haunted her growing up she put on her own shoulders.

“I read the Bible very literally,” she says. “It’s not a ‘blame it on your parents’ thing. It was my nature versus my nurture; and my nature com- bined with the Bible was a terrible combination. I look at religion in that it’s brought an incredible amount of pain—not only on a personal level, but worldwide. What people can do in the name of God is actually unfathomable, to be quite honest. It’s horrific.”

And for this reason, Rowlson-Hall doesn’t consider MA to be a religious film—even if it is an empathic, deeply personal exploration of her own religious experiences. Similarly, though she identifies as a feminist, she smiles at the suggestion of being labeled a feminist filmmaker.

“I remember the first time someone called me a ‘feminist filmmaker’ when they comment- ed about watching one of the videos I’d posted on Vimeo. I felt like I was just making films, but I do realize that there are films out there made by women that don’t uphold the feminist perspective—and that my work is inherently feminist.”

“However,” she adds, “I do hope that we can lift the feminist stamp, just like we can lift gay, straight, bisexual. We need these containers now to give context, but I hope labels can continue to disappear. But, yeah, I’m a feminist filmmaker.”

celia-006-edit

From the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s investigations into the hiring practices at (white) male-dominated studios, to Effie Brown taking Matt Damon to task about casting diversity in front of and behind the camera during Project Greenlight, there has never been a louder dialogue about the need to fix sexism and racism in film. And for good reason. The group Women in Hollywood reported that between 2009 and 2013, women directed 4.7 percent of studio films. The same study found that in the independent film world, women helmed 10 percent of films: an improvement, but still a travesty.

So, it came as no surprise to Rowlson-Hall when, as she began to seek funding for MA, that no one would even hear her pitch—never mind con- sider it as an investment. She recalls financers telling her, “‘Good luck. Curious to see how that turns out,’” before sending her on her way. As other film- makers of unwavering vision increasingly under- stand, Rowlson-Hall’s only option—if she wanted to make MA how she’d dreamed about it for years— was to crowdfund the production budget.

She and Pastides would eventually raise $53,000, including thousands of dollars Rowlson-Hall contributed from her own commercial directing and choreography jobs.

“Sometimes I’d feel like I was just paying to have my own work made and that’s difficult,” she explains. “But at the same time—and something I have to recognize—is that “I made this movie exactly how I wanted to: on my own terms. I did not answer to a single person, except for myself and the budget and the limitations given by that bud- get. I didn’t realize how lucky I was until afterward that I wasn’t beholden to anyone. I could be totally free.”

“The people who came onboard were work- ing for next to nothing and putting everything they could into the project,” she continues. “I made MA to let people know, ‘These are the kinds of films that I make. This is how I’m interested in telling stories.’ I’m just hoping it’s a little easier next time.”

Celia-017-edit

On the slopes of Strawberry Peak in the Angeles National Forest, as the sun drops behind the mountains to the west, Celia-Rowlson Hall prepares to answer a final question. Her bare legs are stippled with goosebumps, and her short hair blows sideways in the wind.

Mara Tasker, conducting the movement interview for BRIGHT IDEAS, asks: “How do you feel when you aren’t allowed to create?”

Rowlson-Hall lowers her eyes to think. Slowly, she kneels on the ground, concealing her body beneath her blue shroud. She crouches motionless for a moment, forehead to the earth. Then she turns her head abruptly, her eyes narrowed into dark slits, and hisses like an injured animal.

She holds the tension of the pose for a long beat, then relaxes out of character.

She laughs. “Like that, I suppose.”

Photos by Blessing Yen