Roughly two years ago, FilmInk found itself in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote as a guest of the Grand Dame Guignol, an evening of burlesque and wrestling which also doubled as the Kickstarter launch for a new documentary, Morgana. Directed by filmmakers Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess, the film tells the story of Morgana Muses, a dutiful housewife in a loveless marriage who reinvented herself as a feminist porn icon. Cut to 2019 and Morgana will be receiving its world premiere at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival.
“I’m oscillating between immense pride and terror!” Hess says when we catch up to find out what’s been happening since the launch. “I mean, we are screening at the beautiful Capitol Theatre. I’m just excited to go inside.”
“We had over 300 hours of footage and ended up whittling it down to around 70 minutes,” Peppard says about the journey that’s brought them here. “Me and Josie originally started the editing process ourselves about 3 years ago and after that, there were years of working on story cards and numerous different cuts before we even handed it over to our editor, Jules De Ruvo (Tidelands). As the cut evolved, it became clear what the film needed to be creatively and narratively cohesive. So, a lot of the evolution has been around building up some of the miniature/imaginative elements to create a more robust metaphorical throughline and refining and polishing the narrative structure.”
Having worked with Morgana on her Permission4Pleasure label, Hess asked Peppard to direct Morgana’s 50th birthday present to herself: being suspended in a large bondage installation. Since that fateful day, the two have been working hard to get Morgana’s story out to the world. It’s a journey that, by their own admission, has taken them from rural Victoria to BDSM clubs of Berlin.
“I would say that our film definitely pushes the boundaries of sexual content that I have seen in any Australian documentary or fiction film,” Peppard says. “That being said, the erotic content is all wrapped up in an extremely intimate and compassionate character portrait, so it doesn’t feel particularly pornographic when you see it in context.”
Two years is a long time in filmmaking, and it feels like the landscape has changed so much in the last 24 months. When we last spoke to the filmmakers, the #metoo movement was just gaining traction, and more recently, mainstream Hollywood has cottoned onto the fact that people will actually see female-led movies. With Morgana’s undercurrent of empowerment rippling through the documentary, FilmInk wonders aloud if there were any recent developments that may have influenced the documentary.
“Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, and the subsequent tendrils of the campaign certainly blew up right as we were moving into the edit stage,” Hess says. “It was certainly a talking point for us as women in film; we would have a lunch break during the edit and catch up about the news. But I think in terms of influencing the production, we were already working on a film that was about ethical porn. Which is all about having good working conditions and ethical frameworks to ensure cast and crew are comfortable. So pre #MeToo we were still being not shit heads. I’m cautious of not wanting to conflate sex work and porn with sexual assault or harassment…”
“I think the shifting social narrative and discussion around women’s place in the world has definitely caused me to understand Morgana’s personal journey as a more universal story about gender, sexuality and identity,” Peppard adds. “For me, the central dramatic tension in Morgana’s story is around how traditional expectations of womanhood interact with the freedom of the individual. By framing these issues within a character journey, we hope to explore them in an organic way that fosters empathy and understanding.”
All this talk about sex and pornography may have some readers clutching at their pearls, but it needs to be stated that, as has already been pointed out, Morgana is not about titillation for the male gaze. It’s about documenting the journey of a woman. A woman who took control of her life before it was too late. We’re all in danger of disappearing into the cracks, Morgana made sure that that would not be her fate. The filmmakers are just as protective of their subject as they were two years ago and, in return, she has never stopped surprising them.
“We had been following Morgana through some dark periods,” Hess admits. “We weren’t really sure where everything was going. Then one day she gives me a call to say she has booked herself into this nude glitter experience and could I come and film it! There were a lot of moments like that during the 5 years, where you think you are done filming, but she kept doing interesting things. So, we just kept filming.”
And what of Morgana herself? Not everyone has a film made about them and, despite putting herself out there with the porn community, the documentary must be an incredibly confronting ordeal. One has to ask, how much input she had in the telling of her own story?
“I can’t overstate the bravery and generosity of Morgana in allowing us to document her life in such an intimate and personal way,” Peppard enthuses. “I think, given the challenges of seeing yourself represented on the big screen, that she has handled it all extremely well.”
“Morgana is very much the subject of the film, so she didn’t get to see a thing during the edit,” Hess adds. “I actually watched the film for the first time in her bed, holding hands, watching on her little laptop. It was a surreal and emotional experience. I was scared to show her; it’s 5 years of her life. She was incredibly gracious and gave the film her blessing, which was a huge relief. She will be the first to admit though, that watching a film about your own life is a very weird experience.”
The film is sure to stir up a conversation after its premiere at MIFF. It’s a conversation the filmmakers have been having for some time and, whilst we talk today, the excitement they have in sharing this conversation on a broader scale is palpable.
“I’m hoping that through Morgana’s personal journey that we are able to discuss the importance of diverse representation in the sexual gaze in a way that is humanistic and relatable,” Peppard says. “Beyond that, I think that we live in a society where ‘happiness’ is seen as the acceptable norm, and there is a sort of fear and shame around vulnerability and emotional honesty. I hope that by representing a character that is as complex, honest and raw as Morgana, we are giving the message that you don’t have to be conventionally ‘perfect’ to have a sexuality, take up space and have a voice.”
“I’m sure a ‘film like this’, about a 50-year-old porn star might turn some people away, we know feminism is divisive, and we know porn is divisive,” Hess adds. “But we also focused on a human story and universal themes like loneliness, feeling like you don’t belong and the need for touch. There is something for everyone… Except explosions! I guess we kind of explode the myth of sexuality expiring after a certain date, so there is that! That’s a good take away.”