[CW: non-graphic discussion of rape and sexual assault]
Director Natalia Leite’s latest film, M.F.A. (2017), is an unflinching female revenge fantasy that takes its narrative cues straight from the headlines. M.F.A. tells the story of Noelle, a struggling art student who, after accidentally killing her rapist, sets out on a quest for justice for other girls on campus who have seen their abusers continue on with their lives without consequence. Premiered at SXSW 2017 and slated for release in theaters this October, the film features a stunningly sensitive performance by Francesca Eastwood as Noelle and artwork from visual artist Christine Wu.
Aware that someone is bound to get the wrong impression about her murderous protagonist, Leite is quick to point out the double standard when it comes to characters on film: “Men do bad things on film all the time, and people love them. Why should women have to limit what they make films about?” Beyond having the same freedom of subject manner as male filmmakers, Leite hopes that M.F.A. will offer a kind of catharsis for people who have experienced sexual assault while also creating a platform to think about and discuss the realities of sexual violence.
Leite was keen to direct M.F.A. after receiving the script from writer Leah McKendrick, as she felt connected to it on a very personal level (a fan of Leite’s first feature, Bare, McKendrick also plays Noelle’s roommate, Skye, in the film). Having had a personal experience with sexual assault while in art school, Leite knew firsthand what an important topic this was and wanted to be the person to bring this story to life. Working collaboratively with McKendrick to bring her own vision to the script, Leite wanted to craft a story that felt authentic to her own experience. “I've watched other stories about rape and revenge and they are always incredibly disappointing,” Leite explained. “It’s always a male director, oddly fetishizing the rape scenes and the revenge part of it, like suddenly this woman becomes sexier and more powerful [because of what happened to her].”
This is why Leite feels it is just as important to have diverse creators as it is for creators to tell diverse stories. “I think inherently, no matter how much research you do, you are not really going to understand what that struggle is,” she elaborated, including herself as a filmmaker who is aware of her own limitations as a white woman. “You know Beasts of the Southern Wild, right?” she continued, “It’s about a little black girl in Louisiana, and the filmmakers are all privileged white men. It’s a beautiful film—I love the film—but, it’s very poetic and it doesn’t comment at all on the struggles of being that person.” Ultimately, Leite feels that it comes down to producers and financiers thinking critically about who they seek out to head projects with diverse perspectives, just as she was able to bring her inherent understanding of the subject matter to M.F.A.
While Leite was coming at the story from a personal perspective, M.F.A. has multiple characters who have dealt with the trauma of sexual assault in various ways. Both Leite and McKendrick felt this was an important sub-topic for the film, and spent time before writing and filming talking with various survivors to get their perspectives. “I'm not making a film that can speak for women everywhere that are assaulted,” Leite said. “I can’t do that because I don’t know what that is, but I can speak on my own personal experience and put that into it... I think [we made] a point of showing that no matter how you deal with the situation, it will still haunt you, especially when there is no justice. Each response is valid because the person is suffering.”
Leite’s foremost goal is to craft a well-made, evocative film, but she also hopes that M.F.A. can have an impact on her audience that will get them to ask important questions about society. “For me the first step towards creating any sort of social change is just having awareness that it’s even an issue,” Leite elaborated. Too often she feels that women do not want to talk about sexual assault because they, validly, feel like they are not going to be defended, while others, both men and women, have no experience with sexual assault and do not realize what a widespread and devastating problem it is in American society. With that in mind, part of the distribution plan for M.F.A. is to take it to college campuses in order to facilitate discussions about sexual assault and help students realize that they can all be part of the solution to combating rape culture.