Film & TV

Ma Filmmaker Celia Rowlson-Hall on Personal Filmmaking and Exploring Gender Roles

It was only a few years ago that filmmaker Celia Rowlson-Hall was living in Miami and working on Si Nos Dejan, her short film commissioned by Borscht Corp. Now she’s returning to the Magic City as part of the Borscht 9.5 minifestival with her debut feature film, Ma, for a one-night-only screening at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Thursday, October 13.

Ma, a modern-day update on the Virgin Mary’s pilgrimage to give birth to Jesus, is almost entirely silent, using mostly characters' body movements to tell the story. The film also reveals a lot about Rowlson-Hall, who wrote, directed, and plays its title character. One scene, an especially rehearsed sequence she refers to as the “dying swan” scene, melds religious imagery and extensive choreography. Though Rowlson-Hall claims it was her favorite scene to shoot, it's based on a painful childhood realization.

"When she ends the dance with the dying-swan image from Swan Lake, it’s because I always wanted to be a ballet dancer," she explains. "In high school, I realized I would never actually be one because I’m not good enough and I don’t have the facilities needed to be a ballerina. I remember feeling like something died in me at such a young age.

“When you’re 15 and you realize you’re not going to have the career you want and you have your whole life ahead of you, it’s hard. Ballet is this ideal perfection of lightness and defying gravity and femininity. So I felt I had this personal connection to Ma, as Celia exploring this ideal ballerina female thing that she thought she was going to be, [and] Ma exploring this virgin mother that she thought she was going to be.”

Rowlson-Hall takes fascinating liberties with the way she adapts Mary’s story for her present-day tale, particularly in how the character isn’t as immaculate as one might think. “I guess the thing is, when I think about Mary’s journey specifically and the Immaculate Conception, we look at it as one of the most divine moments for woman,” she suggests. “It’s the purest form to be impregnated by God, but if you think about it, she actually has no power there.”

To express that, the film juxtaposes the Immaculate Conception with Ma being gang-raped prior to her pregnancy. “Rape in any kind of form is horrible, but gang rape makes things more sickening and terrible. I wanted to put both extremes next to each other so that we explore the notion of a when a woman is ever in control of her body," she says, "whether you’re looking at it as this woman who most Christian religions pray to, or this woman who is brutalized and abused by all of these men.

“Specifically, all the men [in the rape scene] are men who save,” she elaborates. “There’s a priest, a lifeguard, a soldier, a policeman, a cowboy, a giant. These are all strong images of men. In most films, rapists are depicted as sort of these disgusting men, but the thing is, that’s not always how it is in real life. We have issues of men in high-power positions and men who are supposed to be saving others, and they’re actually harming women. I wanted to put her in the position of having no one to save her — not God, not man – and only having herself to complete her journey.”

In that way, Ma continues the examination of what it means to be a women who has driven her career. From short films such as Prom Night and The Audition to her work in Ma, Rowlson-Hall has explored femininity and the performative nature of gender and sexuality.

“I feel like one grows up seeing the expectations of women and their roles, and then I have my own ideas and personal desires of what roles I want to fulfill. So when I don’t see them portrayed, it makes me question, Well, where do I fit in?” Rowlson-Hall admits.

“This has been in me since I was little. We used to order clothes from the Land’s End catalogue because we lived so far in the woods that we didn’t go to the mall. I remember, when I was 8, I wrote a letter to Land’s End saying, ‘Hey, why do you have pictures of girls posing pretty, and boys are doing things I like to do like riding bicycles and fishing and climbing trees?’ So ever since I was young, I’ve always been curious as to why I can’t fulfill the roles that I most identify with, and I’m not identifying with these portrayals of femininity I see.”

That disinterest in conforming to fit in or get ahead is part of what propels her as an artist. “My big journey through this all is understanding the strength in femininity and that we are all masculine and feminine. It’s about understanding those balances and that one does not mean weakness and one does not mean strength.”

7 p.m. Thursday, October 13, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Celia Rowlson-Hall will be in attendance for a Q&A. The screening is part of the Borscht 9.5 mini film fest. Tickets cost $9 to $11. Visit
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Juan Antonio Barquin is a Miami-based writer who programs the queer film series Flaming Classics and serves as co-editor of Dim the House Lights. Barquin aspires to be Bridget Jones.