Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess on MORGANA and Feminist Porn – Alexandra Heller-Nicholas interviews (World exclusive)

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Morgana Muses is living proof that not only can the feminist pornography movement provide an empowering, creative space for women to express their desires, but it has also demonstrably changed the life of at least one woman for the better. Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess’s documentary Morgana is a dazzling portrait of an unforgettable woman. This fearless story about its eponymous filmmaker/porn star is almost guaranteed to stun even those who pride themselves on already having an open mind.

 Sex-positive, age-positive and size-positive, as Morgana unfolds it proves yet again that old Mark Twain chestnut, “truth is stranger than fiction.”  Growing up in the sweltering heat of the isolated Australian outback town of Coober Pedy, the delights of Morgana’s unusual childhood came to a halt when she moved to the city for high school. Social exclusion and a suicide attempt as a teen led to further disillusionment as an adult when her belief that if she got married and was a ‘good wife’, things would improve. Yet stuck in a cold, loveless marriage, she divorced at the age of 45 and believed her life was effectively over.

While carefully planning her suicide, Morgana decided a night with a male escort was a fitting send off after years of loneliness and celibacy. Little did she expect that this evening would reveal an aspect to her that had long been repressed. This newfound sexual awareness led Morgana not only to embrace life, but to become an internationally renowned, award-winning feminist porn director and performer.

Morgana is not for the squeamish as it explores its protagonist’s very real struggles with mental health, her dark (sometimes very, very dark) sexual fantasies, and includes sometimes graphic excerpts from her lengthy filmography as both filmmaker and performer. But one of the documentary’s greatest accomplishments is how determinedly it reveals all the complex and at times contradictory aspects of Morgana that make her such a fascinating subject for a documentary. If there’s dark, there must be light, and that Morgana discovered the latter through the feminist porn movement is one of the things that makes the film so memorable.

 Undeniably, for some the concept of ‘feminist porn’ might not only be new, but also appear paradoxical. The assumption that pornography is synonymous with misogyny and exploitation that came to the mainstream through second wave anti-pornography feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon for many remains irreputable, but this is precisely what Morgana’s story challenges. For Morgana, her experience of oppression, exploitation and misogyny came from the demands placed upon her by mainstream society itself; indeed, it was feminist pornography that liberated her. It was feminist porn where she found her place, her voice, and a creative forum to express desires which women over a certain age are often told are not just inappropriate, but somehow disgusting, forbidden and denied. 

 The press kit for the film therefore includes a useful definition of feminist porn to clarify the term for those for whom it is a new or confronting concept:

“Feminist porn is pornographic and erotic content created with an overarching sex-positive ethical framework guiding its practices. The term stems from the social movement of women’s sexual liberation. The terms ‘sex positive’, ‘feminist’ or ‘ethical porn’ denote a belief that sex and its related pleasures are not inherently bad or wrong. Instead sex positive creators believe sex is a natural and healthy part of life for consenting adults. This view follows through into sex work, with sex positive feminists rejecting the idea that all sex work is exploitative. Instead they see sex work as a viable economic and sometimes liberating choice for women.”

With its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 16 August, Peppard and Hess kindly took the time to discuss their simultaneously impressive and challenging documentary. 

ALEXANDRA HELLER-NICHOLAS: Let’s start at the beginning; how was the Morgana project born? How did you both meet, and what inspired you to collaborate as directors on a film about Morgana Muses?

ISABEL PEPPARD: So me and Josie first met when she was working at Monster Pictures [a Melbourne-based genre film distributor] and I had just completed my 2013 award-winning animation Butterflies that screened internationally at festivals including Sitges, Annecy and DOK Leipzig.

After collaborating on a short Women In Horror Month promo, Josie approached me to direct a shoot for Morgana’s 50th birthday which involved her being suspended in a giant bondage installation in the form of a phoenix; this would become Morgana’s 2015 short It’s My Birthday and I’ll Fly If I Want To.  

When I heard that only three years prior she had been a lonely housewife in rural Australia, I became fascinated with this character and her journey; after a lot of fast-talking, me and Josie decided to pitch to Morgana the idea of turning her life story into a documentary and luckily for us she agreed! 

I remember leaving that meeting and just feeling a tingle running through my body – I like to think it was the tingle of destiny! Originally I was going to direct and Josie was going to produce, but as things progressed it was really clear that Josie’s unique directorial voice was also very present in the filmmaking so it made sense for us to share the directing role.

I would also say that Morgana’s voice is strongly in the film as well because it contains so many of her actual films. In the end I think the film is a visual collaboration between three women creatively responding to each other within a narrative that we all could relate to on some level.

JOSIE HESS: We actually met late one night at a punk gig, and bonded over horror and smashing the patriarchy. I was 22 at the time and still in film school (and somehow working at Monster Pictures as their social media manager). Isabel and I began collaborating on some of her writing projects, which was an amazing experience. 

I had been trying to make a documentary about porn while I was at university, and I was fascinated with the Australian porn industry (or seeming lack thereof) so my idea was to document the process of actually making a porn film. Of course, my teachers shut it down. After that, I started reaching out to porn production companies and eventually became a production assistant on mainstream shoots. 

Around then, I also discovered my lecturer Anna Brownfield was actually a legendary feminist porn director (her 2009 film The Band is hugely influential). I ended up being her production assistant, which is where I met Morgana. 

From there, I began working for Morgana directly, which is when she told me about her plans for her 50th birthday installation. Anna was unable to do the shoot, so Morgana asked me; I hadn’t directed anything before so I reached out to Isabel to see if it was something she might be interested in working on together. We had discussed how interesting Morgana’s story was and how it would make a great short doco, so when the opportunity arose, we took it and never looked back.  

HELLER-NICHOLAS:  Josie, with your previous experience working in the industry I’m guessing it’s a question you’ve been asked more than once, but Isabel now you two might be getting the same thing; how do people generally respond when they hear the words “feminist porn” for the first time if it’s a new concept to them? And how do you see Morgana working to make the term more understood?

PEPPARD:. This is definitely not my field of expertise and I’m pretty sure that at one point I literally asked Josie ‘What is feminist porn?’ The journey of making this film for me has been a one of delving into and become acquainted with the feminist/ethical porn world, and discovering how important and empowering it is to have a diversity of gazes and perspectives on sexuality. In terms of how other people view it, I think there is a certain sexiness to the label ‘feminist porn’ as it contains a sort of inherent contradiction that excites people and makes them ask questions – just as I did.

I have noticed from our social media that there is a camp of vocal anti-porn feminists that fundamentally disagree with all types of porn, whether it incorporates the female gaze or not. 

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.

HESS: Yeah it’s a polarizing term for sure. More than anything, people are curious about what it means; it sounds a bit stuffy and academic or just oxymoronic. Of course, you occasionally get anti-porn feminists or even the conflation of all sex work with sex trafficking. Mostly it ends up in conversation about the practical application of producing porn with an ethical, feminist framework. 

Morgana’s work, particularly early on wasn’t really intended to be political, it was a scream from her soul. Her politics evolved as her work became embraced by the feminist porn world and now she is conciously challenging patriarchal ideas about beauty, age and what it means to be a ‘good woman’. 

HELLER-NICHOLAS:  Morgana opens with what at first seems like a simple scene in the Australian bush as she works on her 2016 short experimental film The Life of Bi about her experiences of living with a bi-polar disorder.  I was struck that the first thing we see is you both in front of the camera with her, not squirrelled away as some kind of cold, invisible figures – it speaks in such a powerful way the politics of your collaboration. 

IP: Because that scene was actually filmed on one of Morgana’s shoots so she was literally directing us! But on our shoots there was definitely a more defined director/subject relationship, but I would still say that Morgana was the third creative collaborator in the production because her films play such a big role in expressing her story and, in a way, the progression of her films naturally mirrors and illustrates the progression of her narrative. 

Directorially we were definitely responding to her vision to tell the story, and as Josie was collaborating closely with her to make her own films there was a sort of creative call and response between the three of us.

In terms of the construction, editing and storytelling of the film, we kept Morgana completely outside of that aspect of the process as we felt that we needed to be able to shape the narrative with some objectivity. We did show it to her once in the editing process just to get her to sign off and make sure that she was happy with how we had represented her and her story.

HESS: Morgana is a visionary; she sees these vivid scenes that she builds her work around. When I work on her projects, I try to facilitate instead of dictate, or let any of my filmmaking background restrict how she ‘should’ be creating.  

The Morgana documentary is full of duel scenes, where we were technically filming one of her projects, but also capturing footage for our documentary at the same time. So there is a blurring of roles, which is what you see on The Life of Bi shoot. 

But as directors of the documentary, we very explicitly separated ourselves from Morgana. We discussed this a lot, about objectivity and truth and found processes that would allow us to work on the film without compromise. 

HELLER-NICHOLAS:  Porn and exploitation have been synonymous for a long time, and with Morgana you were clearly working with her to really change that perception through the lens of feminism as an apparatus and living practice for women to achieve a sense of autonomy and improve their quality of life. But mental health issues also loom large in the film, and Morgana is clearly quite unrestrained in how she discusses this aspect of her life.  How did you both think through how to approach this particular element of her story, considering it too is another area so often assumed to be exploited in the broader mediasphere?

PEPPARD:. As with all aspects of this film, we really just followed what was happening in our subjects life and then represented it with a combination of our vision as directors and her vision as a filmmaker. There is a part of the story where she is having a difficult time and chose to process it through creative expression by making her film The Life of Bi. That wasn’t of our editorial construction – it was just something that was happening in her life at the time, so we followed it.

For me, I could really relate to her using creative expression as a sort of cathartic device to ‘climb out of a hole’ so to speak, as I have also used my own artistic practice to pull myself out of some very severe depression. In fact, my short film Butterflies was born from one of the darkest moments in my life so far so I felt a lot of empathy for Morgana and her struggle to fight the darkness and share her story with others who might be going through the same thing.

HESS: The nature of shooting a documentary is that you never know where the story will go. In our case, early on Morgana’s mental health issues were much more a thing she had overcome. I mean, the first thing we filmed was her triumphant reclamation of her body at the age of 50, with the Phoenix installation – it was a very positive time. 

As we kept filming, her mental health declined, and we realized that we had previously been working with her during a high. We discussed at length the consequence of putting a story into the world that included pornography, mental health and how those elements certainly had a chance at being perceived as exploitative (on either our behalves or even incidentally).

Ultimately, intent matters, Morgana is a willing participant, her story is real and she is capable of simultaniously using pornography as a radical tool for empowerment while being filled with doubt and shame about her work. We didn’t want to shy away from sharing Morgana’s story because it isn’t the perfect neat ‘porn is great’ parable that perhaps people might want it to be.

HELLER-NICHOLAS:  There’s a really interesting parallel between Morgana’s own often highly artistic and creative work to her own filmmaking projects (I’m thinking not only of The Life of Bi, but also especially of 2015’s Having My Cake) and how you both as filmmakers approached the telling of Morgana’s story. Isabel, your background as an artist especially is very notable in the film in the beautifully staged vignettes of Morgana’s early life, using less-than-orthodox documentary storytelling devices to visualize often quite intense emotional moments of her past.  How did you both land upon these particular points to communicate through more abstract, artistic methods of expression?

PEPPARD:. Because the phoenix bondage installation was our very first shoot, we kind of retro-fitted a mythological visual structure working backwards from the image of Morgana suspended in red rope in the form of a phoenix. We started from the open vista’s of Coober Pedy which were a free, genderless space for her, and then her entrapment as a young woman and the pressures to conform to gender norms and life in the suburbs and then her way out of that through an identity void which is kind of filled by the spark of sexuality and creative expression. We set up these miniature worlds as psychological landscapes that we call back to in certain parts of the film.

In a way, Morgana cycles through two stages of death and rebirth, first as the phoenix and secondly when she re-emerges from the grave in the later Life of Bi scenes and is reborn as a more complete and realistic version of herself rather than the one-dimensional ‘triumphant’ character that she felt pressured to be. 

For me personally, coming from an animation I am very interested in using symbolic and mythological elements to tell everyday stories in a way that elevates and heightens the emotional journey of the character.

HESS: We both love the idea of visual metaphors adding layers in documentary. Because Isabel is a creative visionary, she began conceptualizing ways we could depict the early part of Morgana’s story. The combination of the artifice of the sets and the facade of Morgana’s narrative are intended to amplify the dark fairytale aspect of Morgana’s origin.  Isabel’s work is also straight up stunning and she makes all of it herself, so we took full advantage of her skills. 

HELLER-NICHOLAS:   While Morgana’s story is undeniably fascinating, for myself personally – even though her and my lives are very different – I was genuinely rocked by her definition of what she calls ‘facade living’; where we try to live up to the expectations placed on us by having all the surface elements of what ‘happiness’ or ‘success’ is supposed to look like.  I am sure the way that Morgana uses this term in relation to her own story will similarly connect with a lot of other people (perhaps women especially).  What lessons did you learn from Morgana while making this film, and what would you like to see people take away from it?

HESS: I was initially drawn to Morgana because of her rejection of the idea that sexuality ends after a certain age for women. I love that she is out there, having a fucking good time, trying new things (she has a bucket list that I won’t share here, but its killer). It is incredibly inspiring.  

Ageism within sexuality is so problematic, I’m always slipping up – even though I know better. So I hope that her work in challenging ageist assumptions has the largest impact for people. 

PEPPARD:. Yes, although there is a greater dialogue around mental health these days, I think 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. This means that everyone is living the ‘facade’ and performing their own life in some ways, particularly with social media in play!

I hope that by representing a character that is as 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. 

HELLER-NICHOLAS:  At one of her lower points, Morgana gives a very moving and very honest speech about the pressure of success and her fears of being a fraud; that she can’t live up to the expectations her achievements as a feminist porn filmmaker and performer feel like they put on her. Again, I was very moved by this; I’ve heard the phrase ‘success dysmorphia’ used to describe this; that every achievement almost makes the success Jenga tower higher, more volatile and less stable. This documentary is such a different project for both of you considering your respective backgrounds; does this put pressure on you do you feel to do more documentaries? Where does this ‘fit’ into your own individual career trajectories do you think?

HESS: Success dysmorphia, that’s an amazing term for it. I think Morgana’s fears of failure and sense of being an imposter are pretty common among artists. We both see ourselves in her struggles. The feeling that none of this is real certainly makes sense to me. 

I don’t like the idea that all documentary has to ‘change the world’ – I think there is plenty of space for that type of thing, but personally I think my responsibility as a filmmaker is to represent some version of the truth in an entertaining and illuminating way,  because what even is truth anymore?

PEPPARD:. Ahhh, imposter syndrome! My old friend! Yes, I completely related to Morgana on this one! 

Although documentary makes this project different for me it still definitely has a connection to my other work in terms of its use of gothic fairytale and handmade miniature and symbolic elements.

Career-wise I hope that this will demonstrate that I can handle a feature narrative in a medium other than animation and open doors for me to tell stories in all sorts of different formats.

HELLER-NICHOLAS: I understand that Morgana received some funding from Queer Screen in Australia, and the film obviously is quite fearless in depicting Morgana’s sexuality in that we see her on-screen in sexual scenarios with a range of sexual and gender identities.  I very much liked how organic this was, however; it was never a big announcement “MORGANA IS PANSEXUAL”, but rather it just seemed a natural aspect of her sexual discovery that spoke for itself.  Was this a conscious decision, or did it evolve that way on its own?

HESS: Mogs and I have talked at length about her sexuality. She had somewhat of a coming out process over the years, and she currently identifies as pansexual. 

I think it is interesting when we can have LGBTQI+ characters whose sexuality is not the main point or part of them. It’s there and of course colours their experience but it is just one part of what makes them who they are. So too for Morgana, her sexuality of course in a film like this is featured, but it’sp just one part of her, not what defines her.

PEPPARD:. I never actually remember discussing making an ‘issue’ out of her pansexuality. I think it was just something that evolved organically in Morgana’s life, so to kind of step back from it and point it out seemed unnatural in our story. 

HELLER-NICHOLAS:  Looking back at the timing of the film’s production history, it’s quite extraordinary to me that your very successful Kickstarter campaign in for post-production funds was launched in early July 2017. If my math is right, this was almost exactly three months before news stories in The New York Times and The New Yorker about Harvey Weinstein exploded, triggering a new contemporary consciousness about gender politics that brought Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement to the international stage.  It blows my mind thinking that the production of Morgana really straddled both sides of this huge cultural shift – what role do you think this will play in the reception of Morgana by critics and audiences?

PEPPARD:. I think the brilliant thing about telling the personal story of one woman in the world is that is allows us to discuss so many different themes about women in the world without being didactic. 

For me, the central dramatic tension in Morgana’s story is around how traditional expectations of womanhood interact with the freedom of the individual. This is omnipresent in the whole thematic structure of the film and allows us to explore the human impact of issues such as body shame, internalised misogyny, ageism in sexuality and imposter syndrome. 

As narrative cinema is an ‘empathy machine’, we hope that seeing some of these complex issues presented in a character’s journey will help contribute to the current conversation and foster a certain amount of emotional understanding of some of the pressures that we labor under as women in the world.

HESS: #MeToo exploded around us – we had many long conversations about where we fit in and what it meant for our production. Tarana Burke’s original #MeToo movement (which we must not forget started as a campaign for sexual assault victims to collectively heal through sharing stories of trauma) was somewhat eclipsed by Hollywood’s contribution to the stories. 

In some ways the intensity of the spotlight that the media shone on the campaign because of the profile of the people in these stories meant that the movement went further than it may have otherwise. But it also meant that we ended up focusing a lot on very high profile people who tended to have a fair bit of privilege. Still, I think when all is said and done, #MeToo has had a positive impact, in that it’s given us a shared language to discuss the sexism that occurs in every aspect of society. 

I think Morgana will be an interesting addition to the field of work that is produced during this cultural shift. It isn’t a perfect example that would fit a particular argument, and in many ways it muddies the water and adds nuance. Through the film, she  joins the club of people who are able to function while also having a level of cognitive dissonance about one thing or another.  

HELLER-NICHOLAS:  So now that it’s all finished and about to have its world premiere, how does Morgana feel about the film, and where’s her own filmmaking and performing career at right now?

HESS: I watched the film with Morgana for the first  time, in her bed, holding her hand. It was scary for both of us. It was five years of work, and she hadn’t seen anything except what we used in our Kickstarter campaign. It was fairly surreal for both of us. 

I can only imagine what it is like to have your life played back to you, with someone else’s view of you layered on top. She was incredibly gracious and generous with her story, and she was no different with her review when she finally watched it. She will admit herself that it isn’t easy for her to watch, but she wants the film out there in the hope that she might be able to help others who are struggling with their identity and shame. 

Morgana has recently completed her newest film Ladies and the Tramp which was selected for the Berlin Porn Film Festival this year. It will be like a coming home for her, which I am absolutely so happy about. 

The world premiere of Morgana is on 16 August 2019 at the Melbourne International Film Festival miff.com.au More information on the film can be found at morganadocumentary.com

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She has written for publications including Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, Overland, The Monthly, 4:3 Film, Meanjin, The Big Issue and Diabolique Magazine, and has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema. She is currently co-editing a book of essays on Elaine May and writing a book on the history of women in the horror genre.