Celia Rowlson-Hall: Ma
*Northwest Film Forum, Feb 2017
Celia Rowlson-Hall is one of the most groundbreaking artists working in the visual medium today. A graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, she brings the tangible movements from dance and choreographs them into a stunning visual landscape. Her debut feature film "Ma" masters the relationship between movement and space in a film that defies language and brings the absurdity and humanity of ourselves onto the forefront. It is a film that resounds deeply within the viewer and one that is pure Celia; from the conception of the story to its direction and choreography and her transfixing performance as the title character.
In February, we sat down with Celia to discuss "Ma" and the inner workings that resulted in this piece of art.
Did you learn anything about being an artist or about your work as a result of your interaction here or if anything was revealed during the Q&A session?
I always attempt to be very honest within my Q&A knowing there's so many layers to the film. The questions will be to certain layers of the film. Because of Courtney's mentioning of male violence, we went into that layer of the film, which then prompted specific questions from female audience members.
Why do you think storytelling is a important as an artistic medium?
It's essential to share one's story so that others can see it and and find points of connection and understanding. I am most affected and drawn to story told through imagery. Film in particular but also through photographs. For me, it's just the chosen way to express and take in and be affected by.
Most of the time, you appear in your movies. It reminded me of Cindy Sherman's self-portraiture. Do you feel you're showing different layers of yourself as you're doing it? How do you feel when you're embodying the characters?
I like to think that it's more than me. They say with actors, to get into character, they have to find that heart of the character within themselves and exemplify it a 100 percent through their bodies and brains. Become that character. I like to take elements of myself and instead of making it 100 percent, make it 1000 percent. So I'm almost covered in the extreme. I take extreme parts or very specific parts of myself and fully embody them.
Why "Ma" as a title?
Ma, in yoga practice, is the sound of the second root chakra, which is fertility, fluidity and femininity. Ma in Japanese culture means negative space or the space between. Ma as in the cry for mother. Ma is the most common. Titles are the hardest things to find and when you do you're done. I found it before I wrote the film. I was in an ashram in India and someone had written "Ma Ma Ma" on little rocks and I thought that's the title of my film.
What do you think of the future of film, visual storytelling, new media and media arts as it relates to digital communications and technology and self expression?
Film will continue to shift and expand. I think that film is really at the beginning. Yes, we've had a lot of white male perspective but we haven't heard from people of colour and women. And who knows what they're going to do with the form. There's still miles to go. I think we're at the beginning and not at the end.
There's a lot of absurdity in your films. Where does that come from?
I think being raised on Charlie Chaplin. It's the absurdity of character and nature. Absurdity gives context and perspective. So I really like to put mundane and absurd next to each other. So if you think watching the television but then being affected by the different genres of entertainment over the course of two minutes instead of what we typically do. It's all going into you. It's all affecting you. Sometimes absurdity allows you to look at things realistically.
What's your relationship like with language? Do you feel you need to express it later on to others (about your film)?
I didn't realize I would need to explain myself with words until after I made it. People wanted more ways in and the way we communicate is spoken language. Language limits your perspective of the world and that's why I don't necessarily want to explore it. It's my goal as a filmmaker to make something as specific and intentional and translate it in a clear enough way that I don't have to explain it.
What started your obsession with beginnings?
There's something about the beginning of a school year or new year's or a birthday where you have a chance for a beginning. You have a chance to better yourself. You have a chance to be a different person than you were before. And I'm one of those people who's always craving for a chance for a new beginning and emerge as a better person. I'm always trying to self improve. I think I try to create beginnings in my own work. Specifically for Ma, what I wanted to tell was the mother's journey, not the hero's journey. The question is why can't the mother be the hero?
It was a two-fold purpose. One, why can't the mother be the hero? And two, what was before the beginning?
Do you feel you were successful in bringing the human side of things, of looking at women as humans and not as a gender?
I don't know if we'll ever evolve to look at women past their gender. I think that's how we're defined, more so than men. You can look past a man. We can't look past a woman beyond her gender. I don't think we've evolved to that point. Societally women are still quantified that way. My question is what is it to be human? Stripping away all these ideas of what I'm supposed to be as a woman. Who am I as a human? A lot of that is just about having questions, having needs, having flaws. But we've also created the one-dimensional woman. There's so much I was trying to break away from. Because I grew up very androgynous looking, flat-chested and skinny, I was made to feel like I wasn't womanly. Because I don't look like a woman but I'm 100 percent a cis woman. I am a woman and you want me to fit into this idea of what a woman is. I don't fit into that. In a lot of my short films, I'm trying that on. In "Ma", I'm like fuck this noise. I'm woman and I'm man. And guess what? All men are women as well. We have these vacillating fluids of us. That's what makes us human. So in a way I played into the strength that was always my weakness. Hopefully people see past my gender and start to look at a human being.