Natalia Leite talks traveling the world promoting her latest film, M.F.A.
M.F.A. is a film unlike any other I’ve seen on such a delicate, yet ever-present topic: sexual abuse. Director Natalia Leite wanted to showcase how abuse can affect women, and how each individual chooses to cope with such a traumatic and life-altering event. Unlike previous films or television shows, M.F.A. goes in a direction that will surely win over audiences in a certain demographic.
I had the chance to interview Leite, as we discussed how such a unique film came to fruition, and the overly positive response from fans and critics alike as M.F.A. makes its way through the festival circuit. I was fortunate enough to see the film back in March for the 2017 SXSW Festival, and have been eager for more individuals to see this cult classic in the making. You can read my formal review here.
How has it been traveling with this film this year from, you know, South by Southwest, and Fantasia and all the festivals in between? How’s this experience been so far promoting this film?
Natalia: “It’s been awesome. It’s always so fun. It’s just like this really wonderful part of the process where you just get to hear people’s reactions. And like, at least for me right now, even if I get something that’s not super positive, which honestly hasn’t happened much in this case, I’m still of the mindset of now this is out in the world and it’s gonna be whatever it wants to be, you know? I can’t control how everyone’s going to perceive it, and I know it’s kind of challenging subject matter. Some people are gonna love it and some people might think it’s controversial or be struck by it in a different way, and that’s totally fine. “
I know it’s a tricky subject matter. But from when I watched it, the actions of the protagonist, played by Francesca Eastwood, are justified. Because of that kind of no-holds-barred scene that opens up the film. It is definitely hard to watch, but you can also see the natural progression of the character in her turn, and I think that’s a reason enough for that audience that does love this film to relate to her and to root for her. So was that one of your goals?
Natalia: “Definitely. I was really thinking about point of view and I didn’t want people to necessarily agree or be on her side with the stuff that she was doing after the fact at all, but more so that they could understand where she was coming from. That was really important to me. And that they could put themselves in her shoes, and that would be huge. Which is why that rape scene is so important. I think if you were really shocked by it and feeling for her, then it makes her actions relatable in some way because you’re fueled with her anger and the injustice in this situation, the school system.”
“Mainly because people don’t understand what it’s like to be in that position where you’re being assaulted. And they can’t imagine it or they think like, “Oh well, there’s no bruises left at the end of the day possible, so we can’t really see the pain of what’s going on?” – Natalia Leite
Right. I also love how you depicted how others react to getting raped, or something happening to them, being sexually abused. And some of my favorite scenes actually are when they’re in that … Kind of like their meetings, if you will? Her reactions to everyone else’s reactions were really … Those little moments I personally enjoyed. Because you get, she’s more of the realistic perspective. As opposed to a facade.
Natalia: “Right. And people deal with trauma in different ways, right?”
Natalia: “For one of the characters, she just wants to pretend like it never happened, and just be this happy-go-lucky girl, and just go on living her life and bury it under the rug. And then for another girl, she tries to seek action but doesn’t get anywhere with it and is just left with having to face the reality of “well this guy’s not gonna be tried or be punished for his actions.” And then there’s Noelle who’s like, “Okay well if that doesn’t work, I’m going to go find something else to do about it.” It was interesting to see how different people respond to that. And the girls in that group which was supposed to be like, “We’re getting together to create positive action in the world and in school.” They’re making up a hashtag, and at the end of the day, a hashtag is just a hashtag. It’s not going to actually change something that’s there.”
Right, and I think that came across very clear in the film. And, when you first approached Francesca about this project, what was her initial reaction?
Natalia: “I had sent her a script and then we met for lunch. We talked about it and I kind of told her a little bit about how I work and my style and what the role required. I didn’t want to shy away from anything. I want to really follow through with the real approach to the subject matter because I felt like it was so important. We had an opportunity to do something that hadn’t been done before. Specifically, one where the rapist is not like a crazy guy chasing you in the park at night, it’s your friend in the classroom. I explained to her where I wanted to go with it, and she was super on board. We got to work pretty quickly. I gave her a lot of material to read and research about her character and, yeah, it came together fast.”
That’s great though because her performance was pretty riveting to be honest. It was very subdued in some ways and very, not over the top, but very animated in other ways that it needed to be. When she was in that character that she was when she was killing these men, rightfully so. And no other film has made me realize how … Like always know men are assholes. I hate being a man because 99.9% of the time males are jerks. They are. And I can’t fathom around the way that these men think. These college bros who think they can get away with anything. So, it even sheds more light. Like I was telling my friend Scott, who watched the film with me as well, and we were like, “Wow, men suck. (laughs). Men suck.” And as a man, I agree with everything you’re saying. I’m not just saying that. Because it’s about time that these men get off their high horse and get a fucking reality check. I’m sorry, but … (laughs) It’s that …
Natalia: “Yeah. I feel like rape crimes are not dealt with the same severity as other crimes. Mainly because people don’t understand what it’s like to be in that position where you’re being assaulted. And they can’t imagine it or they think like, “well there’s no bruises left at the end of the day, so we can’t really see the pain of what’s going on” But talking to so many women who have survived sexual assault who were like, “Part of me died in that process.” You’re not going to go on living in the same way that you were before. It’s traumatic and I feel like our society doesn’t really talk about. There’s a lot of shame. Women don’t talk about it. Everyone’s part of the problem. It’s not just the guys. Women don’t speak up and so, we don’t talk amongst ourselves. There’s a reason for everything, right? It creates a really toxic culture where it’s somewhat okay, acceptable, push it under the rug that someone was sexually assaulted.”
Right. And what one of the fake messages that I took away from the film is that, like you said, is pain isn’t always about physical abuse. There’s a lot of mental abuse that a lot of other areas of life. Like I’ve related the film a lot because of issues I’ve had in my life with anxiety and depression and things like that. People always saying, “Oh, it’s not real. It’s not real.” Because, you know, just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean these feelings that you’re feeling aren’t real. It doesn’t mean that events that took place didn’t happen. And that’s a big message that I took away from the film, but I think that’s why it really spoke to me and made me as emotional as it did. So, and from that standpoint, I think you really nailed that. So you’re not just speaking to women, you’re speaking to the world.
Natalia: “Right. Yeah, people standing up towards injustice and abuse, and not letting circumstances get you down. And trying to create change. Obviously, don’t go kill anyone! But (laughs) find ways to open up the conversation. That’s what I want to do. I just want to open up a conversation about it. About something that’s not spoken about enough. I mean, now it’s starting to get around a little bit more, but you know it’s still a thing where it’s not talking about it.”
Right. And that’s why I think the more people that see this film the more eyes are going to be opened. So, from Fantasia on, what is the plan for M.F.A.?
Natalia: “So, we’re going to be in theaters in October, mid-October. Dark Sky, which is part of MPI, is releasing it. We’re not sure of the exact date yet, because we’re just now booking the theaters and all of that. But, it’s exciting. So we’ll be in a few theaters around the country. ”