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‘M.F.A.’ Director Natalia Leite Faced Her Sexual Assault By Directing a Rape-Revenge Thriller

Natalie Leite's "M.F.A." may tell a tough story, but in it the filmmaker saw the chance for redemption and healing.

“M.F.A.”

Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.

It’s everyone’s favorite buzzword these days: “timely.” Films about bonkers dictators, documentaries that dive into seemingly long-past crimes, television series about governments given over to wild-eyed religious orders — but it doesn’t get more timely than Natalia Leite’s “M.F.A.,” a female-created and -driven drama about sexual assault and its fallout. The film, which first bowed at SXSW in March, opens this week, the second week of the endless Harvey Weinstein scandal. That’s beyond timely; it’s downright weird.

“I thought it was crazy when we were making it, but it just keeps getting crazier and crazier,” Leite told IndieWire this week. “We were shooting exactly a year ago, and we were like, ‘This is so timely, we have to do this now.‘”

The film follows Francesca Eastwood as art student Noelle, a shy outcast struggling to fit in and make her work stand out. When she is violently raped by a fellow student, it seems like she might shut down entirely. But “M.F.A.” packs a pitch-black twist as Noelle accidentally offs her rapist and unleashes some very unexpected inspiration. It fuels her public work as well as a secret vigilante streak, both bloody and biting in equal measure.

Screenwriter Leah McKendrick pursused Leite after seeing her previous work, sending her a copy of the script for “M.F.A.” Leite had just watched “The Hunting Ground” and was beginning to feel the issue of sexual assault was getting the kind of public attention it had never had — but there was something more that connected her to the material.

“I felt like I had to make this movie because I have a personal connection to it, I had gone to art school, I had been sexually assaulted during art school,” Leite said. Reading McKendrick’s script and seeing so much of her own experience on the page was “surreal,” but she instantly recognized that power that could come with telling such a story on her own terms.

Leite says that McKendrick happily allowed her to tweak parts of the narrative and Eastwood’s character to be more reflective of her own experiences. Eastwood even wore some of Leite’s old clothes to get into character as Noelle, and her banged haircut and black dye job were made to match the director’s own look during her art-school days. “M.F.A.” provided the filmmaker with the chance to return to a dark part of her own life, this time with creative power and the possibility of healing.

“M.F.A.”

“I hadn’t really been vocal about my own experience, because I just did not want to be ‘that girl’ when it happened,” Leite said. “I was ashamed, and for a lot of reasons just didn’t talk about it. This is me being able to go back and process it and speak openly about it, even to my own family.”

She believes it worked. “I highly recommend it! Being able to do that as therapy is very powerful,” Leite said.

It wasn’t easy, though. “I didn’t go into it thinking, ‘this is going to be super-transformative,’ I went into it super-scared, but knowing like, ‘Okay, you gotta go do this now,'” she said. “I’m having a conversation with myself, and one part of me is saying, ‘Just do it.'”

She was particularly unnerved when it came to shooting the film’s rape scene, and she nervously counted down the days until it was time to lens it, striving to build trust with her cast and crew (especially Eastwood and co-star Peter Vack). Ultimately, she found that fear was a great motivator.

“I felt like I had to do it, I was terrified of shooting the rape scene, I was terrified of having to talk about me having my own personal experience with it,” she said. “The whole thing just freaked me out. ‘What will this mean? Am I welcoming this [back] into my life that I tried to hard to push away and pretend like it didn’t happen?’ But I knew that if I’m doing something that really terrifies me, I should just go ahead and do it. I just started taking baby steps.”

With the release of the film occurring at such a fraught time in industry history, Leite is hopeful that “M.F.A.” will help fuel the conversation, even if people don’t necessarily like it.

“Some people might not get it, some people don’t get it,” Leite said. “That’s okay, I can’t speak to everyone. Some things might have been too subtle for people to really pick up on, it’s just not their kind of movie or they’re offended by it or they think it’s going to spur a bunch of angry feminists killing innocent guys, who knows what it is.”

When hit with those kind of criticisms, she remembers people like the woman who stood up during a post-screening Q&A in Montreal with more of a statement than a query, opting to use that platform to talk about her own sexual assault. “Now she has an audience listening to her? That is extremely powerful,” Leite said.

Leite is the last person who would ever discount the power of sharing stories, and she says that impacting change when it comes to the Weinstein allegations as well.

“Now, because one person spoke up, they’re all coming out and being like, ‘This happened to me too,’ and that’s really huge,” she said. “Other women are giving us the courage to speak up and show how prevalent this issue is. As long as people are talking, I feel like I’ve done a good job. If it’s spurring the conversation, then already one woman in the audience is changed by it, then great. It’s already a success story.”

“M.F.A.” is available in theaters, VOD, and HD digital today.

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