Fantasia 2017 Profile: Natalia Leite
“I want to stir dialogue and push buttons, because my work is inherently political.”
On the surface, M.F.A. is a film about a female art major who is dissatisfied with the way her school handles her sexual assault, accidentally kills her rapist while confronting him, and emerges as a vigilante killer set to avenge college girls whose attackers walked free—all while gaining more and more creative inspiration for her thesis project. While that premise may already be enough to get some people giddy, M.F.A. has a lot more to unpack than what sits on its narrative timeline.
Just below the surface exists a dramatic and psychological thriller that is bold, brave, and desperately needed in today’s social climate. It’s a film that doesn’t advocate for its characters decisions, but one that allows you to see through their eyes and empathize with the choices that they make. It’s a film that understands and exhibits the wide variety of reactions that victims can have when faced with sexual assaults and rape. It is a film that wants to start conversations and isn’t afraid to put difficult topics in the spotlight.
Written by Leah McKendrick and directed by Natalia Leite, with music by Sonya Belousova, production design by Kelly Fallon, costumes by Tika von Mehren, performances by a number of talented actresses (including a break-out performance by Francesca Eastwood), and a number of women on the producer team, M.F.A. is a film that is tackled by women from all angles.
A female gaze is as good as non-existent when it comes to films in the rape-revenge category, and its presence in M.F.A. is more than notable. With women at the helm, we end up with a film that is uniquely refreshing and devastatingly real.
In reviews coming out of SXSW, M.F.A. has been called “unapologetically feminist”, “intensely engaging, thought-provoking, and mesmerizing”, and “an unflinching examination of rape culture from a female perspective”.
Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Natalia Leite is a writer, director, and actor. She is a frequent contributor to Vice Media and co-created the original docu-series Every Woman: Life as a Truck Stop Stripper. She also co-wrote, co-directed, and co-starred in two seasons of the comedy web series Be Here Nowish. Her first feature, Bare, premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Her work has been praised by publications such as Los Angeles Times, Film Journal, and The Slanted.
M.F.A. had its World Premiere at SXSW and has kicked off its festival run as an official selection of both Overlook Film Festival and Galway Film Fleadh.
If you’re in Montréal, you can see the Canadian Premiere of M.F.A. at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, screening at 9:30 PM on July 26th and at 1:05 PM on July 27th. GET YOUR TICKETS HERE.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with filmmaking.
Natalia Leite: I grew up in Brazil and would spend a lot of time daydreaming stories, but didn’t feel like filmmaking was a possible career path for me then. Brazil didn’t really have a filmmaking industry. Anything film related was advertising or tele-novelas. But, I was always really into art and writing and really wanted to move to the US as soon as I ended high school. So, I applied to art schools and ended up at the San Francisco Art Institute, which exposed me to a whole new world where art and filmmaking were realistic career choices. I made a lot of experimental films for gallery shows and eventually realized that narrative filmmaking was my medium of choice. It was all a pretty organic path.
How do you feel your experiences with visual art have influenced your directing style?
NL: When I started working in the film industry after art school, I felt like not having gone to a proper film school like NYU or USC was a disadvantage, ‘cause those students where having classes with James Franco and having their teachers email Sundance programmers, etc. But now looking back at it, I’m so glad I had my own non-traditional education around film. Sometimes film programs want everyone to check off a box that they think will lead to success. But that can also mean people don’t stand out and they are too focused on the “right” way to make a film. I didn’t have any of that, so when I started making films I would just decide what was “right” for me or for the story, and it wasn’t based on what someone told me in school. I think that was super liberating and made my work more stylized. It made me able to break all the rules at times because I didn’t even know the rules existed! My art school placed a lot of focus on expressing your own unique voice — what makes you YOU. What makes you and your art unique. And this has really stuck with me.
Tell us about M.F.A.. How did this project come about?
NL: Leah Mckendrick wrote the script for M.F.A. She knew of my work and got in touch with me last summer to direct it. I loved the script and saw so much potential in it. Leah and I had a great collaboration, putting our visions together for this story, and it all came together very quickly. We were shooting by August/September.
With your previous feature, you were both the writer and director. What were the highlights and challenges of directing someone else’s script this time around?
NL: It can be wonderful because you have a perspective on the story that the writer does not. You have distance from it. You didn’t spend years writing it. So, I could look at the script and tell Leah, “Hey this scene isn’t really working,” or “I don’t think we need this.” It’s harder to see these things when you are also the writer. It was definitely hard for me to do this on Bare. You spend so much time writing something and living in the world of the script that it’s almost impossible to know if your intentions are really coming across.
The other part about it is the collaboration. I feel like I got lucky with Leah, ‘cause she is very open to hearing someone else’s idea. Some writers might be stubborn or precious about their writing, but Leah just wanted to make the best film together. Sometimes we would disagree and I would have to back off cause at the end of the day I’m not the writer here, but we would always have long chats about any disagreement and make sure we could convince the person of why this choice had to be made.
Compared to rape-revenge films that are so often written and directed by men, do you feel M.F.A. benefits from its female influence?
NL: 100%! Most rape-revenge films fetishize the rape and the woman in it — it’s like they are trying to make it hot that she is seeking revenge. It’s not empowering for women at all. I really wanted the rape scene to be super realistic. Aaron Kovalchick—the Director of Photography—and I thought a lot about how we were going to show the rape and how Noelle would be portrayed. There are barely any cuts in the scene. We just played it in real-time from beginning to end and made it look as raw and real as possible. As the movie progresses Noelle ends up getting more in touch with her sexuality because she is claiming ownership of her body. She looks a little sexier, but this transformation is for her and not for anyone else. The story is really told from the female perspective and the female experience, without a male gaze.
Much of M.F.A. is based in reality and lot of real-life issues are raised within its narrative. What are your hopes for the conversations that this film will (and has already started to) raise in its audiences?
NL: My hope for any film I make is that it starts a much needed conversation. I don’t want to make movies where the audience leaves the theatre saying “Cool, that was good” and the conversation ends there. I want to stir dialogue and push buttons, because my work is inherently political. It’s not about having a clear message, but about placing the viewer in another person’s point of view to say something about what it means to be that person. With M.F.A., I really wanted the audience to understand what Noelle was going through. We don’t have to agree with her decisions, but we can feel for her and her story.
In some of the Q&A’s for M.F.A. people have asked what they can do to help end rape crimes in college campuses. I think the first step is to be a witness. Know that this is an issue and that it is a horrible crime that should never be taken lightly, no matter what the context. And talk about it. That’s the first step to creating change. Hopefully this film helps people to take that first step.
Can you tell us about some/all of the other amazing women who worked on this film?
NL: So many wonderful women! Leah McKendrick—who wrote the script and also acted in the movie and produced it. She is so fun and loving, and is always this bright energy in the room. She is also a total bad-ass strong woman, who knows how to really hustle and make things happen. She’s a phenomenal actress and I can’t wait to direct her again. Francesca Eastwood who played Noelle was a godsend. She is super dedicated to her craft, incredibly talented, and fearless. I couldn’t imagined a better person to take on this role. Kelly Fallon, our production designer, and Tika Von Mehren, our costume designer, were both amazing to work with. So much respect for these two creative women. They were working on incredibly small budgets and really surpassed all my expectations. Also Mariah Owen, our executive producer, who was on set with us every day and no job was too small or too big for her. The best team player. We had a female 1st A.D. and a female gaffer, set dec, prop master, line producer, and many wonderful actresses involved in this project.
Who are your favourite women working in the film industry?
NL: There are many. But shout out to Patty Jenkins! She rules.
What’s the best advice about filmmaking you’ve ever received?
NL: “Persistence and perseverance.” It ain’t easy, but if you love it enough and keep doing it, it will pay off.
And now for some fun ones! If you could live in any sitcom, which one would it be?
What components make up your ideal sandwich?
NL: Hummus, hummus, and more hummus.
Finally, recommend one #MUFFApproved film for our blog readers:
NL: I just finished watching The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu and loved it. Ok, it’s a TV show not a feature, but everyone should check it out! A lot of fabulous women directors working on it.
Lisa Gallagher is the Producer of The MUFF Society in Toronto. She is a lover of cats, carbs, and laying down.