A lonely housewife’s plan to commit suicide takes an unexpected turn when her last hurrah begins a radical journey of sexual exploration and personal reinvention.
Morgana was a divorced woman in her late 40’s, living in rural Australia; she had lost her identity and was cast out from the life she once knew. It was the decision made in the last moments, before making the desperate attempt to end it all that changed the course of Morgana’s life. At age 50, Morgana explores the unexpected turns life can take… just when you think your life is over.
This incredible documentary explores the life and journey of Morgana Muses, the age-positive, sex-positive creative director and performer of Permission 4 Pleasure. Directors Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess have created an empowering and moving documentary that brings light to women, their roles in society and their sexuality ‘bringing a character like Morgana to the big screen, we will be opening conversations around representation, visibility and the rights of the individual to a sexuality at any age.’
I had the opportunity to interview Isabel Peppard about the upcoming documentary and her own experiences as a female artist/director.
A Feature Length Documentary: 75 mins
Directed and Co-produced by Isabel Peppard & Josie Hess
Produced by Karina Astrup
Directors Josie and Isabel are currently crowdfunding for the post production expenses of their new documentary. Searching for creative and exciting rewards, they approached Garth Knight, whose work appears in the film, to collaborate with them on a once in a lifetime experience for one of their backers.
This One Off reward gives one lucky backer the opportunity to be tied into a work of art by Australia’s leading Shibari artist. Garth’s work has been exhibited locally and internationally from MONA to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. You can help support the film on Kickstarter here.
There are many challenges facing women and particularly older women in our society. You are drawing attention to this struggle for many middle-aged women in Morgana, via a difficult subject, women’s sexuality. Do you think the documentary may help tackle these issues? And may possibly help others find a solution to the isolation they may be experiencing?
I think one of the benefits of sharing stories is that it helps to define a common experience and therefore can make the individual feel less isolated within their own day-to-day struggles. In the case of Morgana’s story, despite the unusual trajectory it takes, many of the obstacles that she is facing are socially pervasive, particularly for women. Her experience of feeling invisible after a certain age, her lack of intimacy and sexual isolation within her marriage and her struggle to conform to societal expectations around her role as a mother and a wife are common experiences but we rarely see films exploring these issues from the perspective of a middle-aged woman. Statistically women over 40 are less represented in film in general with speaking parts for women diminishing once the hit their 40’s and the available roles becoming less diverse and challenging. With a character like Morgana, her role in our film is not defined by being someone’s mother or wife, she is a protagonist in her own right, an edgy individual going on a quest towards personal freedom, a hero’s journey if you will, and this representation is unusual for female characters of her age. I’m not sure if we can tackle these issues but we hope that just by bringing a character like Morgana to the big screen, that we will be opening conversations around representation, visibility and the rights of the individual to a sexuality at any age.
The porn industry gets its fair share of backlash from the public. How have you tackled this type of feedback when promoting Morgana?
People’s reactions have actually been very interesting. In general, the public has been a lot more open minded about the pornographic elements of Morgana’s story than we initially expected. I think because the porn is framed within the context of an ordinary individual’s quest for personal freedom, it is somehow humanized and becomes less sensationalist. That being said, there has been a minor backlash from both men and women. Particularly when we had our article in the ABC, because the words Feminist and Porn were together in the headline, we got a lot of internet hate from men who seemed to be a little triggered by those words appearing together. There are also plenty of feminist commentators who are anti-porn although we haven’t had a lot of backlash from other women at this point. In the case of Morgana’s films, she writes and directs them and they are shot and edited by women so it is very much the female gaze on sexuality and female pleasure. They are also classed as ‘ethical porn’ which means that all the sex depicted is realistic and consensual, safe sex is enforced, all performers must have strict sexual health checks and have fully and properly consented to everything filmed.
For me, the interesting thing about the role of pornography in Morgana’s story is that porn has historically used women’s bodies exploitatively and sometimes violently but Morgana has taken this medium back and used it to fight against the societal forces that demand that women fade out of visibility after a certain age. She is using porn to dignify publically her own naked body, a body that bears the scars of childbirth and obesity, with the right to a sexuality that is not derided or fetishised because of her age.
After seeing the trailer for Morgana, it looks like you have managed to capture some extraordinary moments while filming. How did you manage to be there for these raw and personal exchanges?
We were lucky within the process of making the film because my co-director Josie Hess is also the person who shoots and edits Morgana’s films. That meant that we had incredibly intimate access to our character, both on set and behind the scenes. We also shot A LOT of footage! I think we have approximately 300 hours! The reason we overshot is that we were trying to get to the heart of the character and we needed to be able to get to a place where we captured authentic moments that weren’t self conscious. Despite the inherent politics within the issues of the film, we didn’t set out to make something overtly political, we were more interested in exploring a character and her journey and attempting to unpack why an individual makes such an extreme change in their life.
What message do you hope people who watch Morgana, come away with after watching the film?
I don’t think there is an easy message within the film because it is not clearly defined as entirely positive or negative. Like life, there are shades of light and darkness all the way through. I think one thing that I hope people will come away with is that it is never too late. Just when you think that your life is over (as Morgana literally did) fate and destiny can surprise you. There are always strange and unexpected journeys to embark on at any age and there is no expiry date on that.
I think this age positive message is important, but also just for women in general. How have you found the film industry, from your own personal experience as a female filmmaker and artist, both prior to and during Morgana?
Yale University astrophysicist Meg Urry once wrote, “Discrimination isn’t a thunderbolt, it isn’t an abrupt slap in the face, it’s the slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success.”
To me this is more relevant to film than to visual arts as within my art practice I am completely self-financed and only have to rely on my own skill and motivation to make my work. Within the film industry, things are different. Recent data analysis of the last 10 years of film production in Australia shows that more than 75% of the male producers in the industry worked with only one or no women in key creative roles. This means that there are simply less opportunities for female directors to find the experienced producer that they need to be eligible for financing. Despite the incentives out there for female directors, we first need experienced producers attached to our projects and this has been a real roadblock for me and a lot of my peers. I also think there is that issue of unconscious bias where people just want to work with their ‘mates’ and others that they relate to. If you can’t relate to a woman as an equal or a leader then you won’t want a woman directing your film, it’s as simple as that.
All this being said, film is an incredibly tough industry for anyone to be part of and I recognize that all directors face roadblocks and hurdles in trying to get their work made but statistically it is tougher out there for women unfortunately. In a lot of ways, making Morgana was very liberating as we didn’t have to sit around waiting to be picked by a producer or a financier, we just got out there and started making a film. The medium of documentary allowed us to work independently without major compromises as the documentary format is more forgiving of an intimate/fly on the wall approach to storytelling rather than a drama shoot where you need a decent sized crew and dollars to realize the vision of the film.
I already adore the sets you have used for the filming, the burning house animation is very powerful, how much of your stop motion experience has filtered into the documentary?
Thanks! As an animator and visual artist I naturally approach all my work with an imaginative, creative eye. I am someone who looks for opportunities to poetically illustrate every day experience and particularly the darker side of human psychology. Morgana’s propagation of the Phoenix metaphor for her personal story allowed us to retrofit some of our visuals to embrace this larger than life mythology that she has created for herself.
Have you learned anything personally from Morgana that you can elaborate on?
What have I learned from Morgana? Probably that Art finds a way! Despite her repressive upbringing and deeply conservative community, Morgana was able to eventually find a creative voice in a very unusual way. Yes, she makes porn, but her porn is a creative expression of her personal story and what is stirring within her soul. Even in the darkest moments of our film, there is a light and that light is that she has found Art. Despite everything that is stacked against her at the beginning and the end of her story she is still compulsively driven to express herself in the medium of film and her enthusiasm is liberating and contagious.
‘Morgana’ is an artistic character portrait of a 50 year old housewife who reinvents herself as a sex-positive feminist porn star. Stuck in the suburbs of rural Australia, Morgana is an eccentric woman who struggles to fit into her role as a dutiful housewife and mother. After significant weight gain, she is ridiculed and ignored by her husband and loses her desired status as a ‘trophy wife’. At the age of 47 she finally gets a divorce, but is cast out by her conservative community and left completely alone to drift nameless and stateless. Desperately in need of touch and human contact, Morgana hires a male sex worker for one ‘last hurrah’ before ending it all.
After 15 years of loneliness and sexual isolation within her marriage, the encounter ignites a spark within her and she takes control of her life and begins the process of re-constructing her identity.
After hearing about a competition for first time erotic film makers, Morgana feels compelled to make a film about her own story. The film ‘Duty-Bound’, which she directs and stars in, is about leaving her marriage and the first night she spent with the male escort. Unexpectedly, the film went on to win the Petra Joy Award award and was screened at the Berlin Porn Film Festival catapulting Morgana into a new world of sexual diversity and feminist porn.
Moving to Berlin to be with her newfound community, life merges with art as Morgana uses erotic filmmaking as a tool for creative catharsis and personal reinvention.
Is Berlin the key to finding her happiness, or will the threads that connect her to Australia be too strong to break?
As female directors we were attracted to Morgana because she is a fascinating, complex protagonist who naturally challenges expectations of a middle-aged woman’s character, sexuality and place in the world.
Originally what drew us to this story were the themes that were on the surface, the taboo of female aging and visible sexuality, the human need for intimacy and touch, the search for community and belonging and the redemptive power of art. As our journey with the character continued, other layers of meaning rose to the forefront; the construction of identity and self, how we play into social and personal narratives and where the line between the ‘authentic self’ and the ‘performance of self’ is drawn.
Stylistically we are drawing on our diverse creative backgrounds in animation horror and erotica to poetically illustrate and heighten our characters psychological journey. The use of handmade miniature sets, installation art and Morgana’s own films compliment the dark, sexual nature of the material and adds beauty and weight to the telling of her story, while also allowing us to explore the line between art and artifice.
Photos courtesy of Morgana Documentary. GAK_Pieta-Blood-Consciousness by Garth Knight.