The bored and lonely housewife who indulges in a lifetime of erotic pleasure has been a porn movie for at least the days of the 8mm bachelorette party. But the Belle-de-Jour-style protagonist is never an unhappy Australian mother who transitions from planning suicide to radical reclaiming agencies through hiring a male escort to international fame as an award-winning feminist pornographer. Until now. Meet Morgana Muses, the unlikely star of Josie Hess and Isabel Peppard's Fantasia Film Festival premiere documentary Morgana.
Filmmaker and pornographer Hess and her co-director Peppard, who is also an animator and visual artist, began working on an unusual feature-length character study at Morgana's 50th birthday party in an equally unconventional way. As a gift to themselves, the self-invented sex symbol asked the duo to document the celebration – especially their naked body, which was hung in Japanese rope bondage. And so the idea of a film about an artistically defiant middle-aged porn star came about.
Before the document's virtual festival debut on August 20, the filmmaker met with the Australian directors to find out everything about the Berlin Porn Festival. His fans include everyone from Petra Joy to Stoya, just two of the many erotic pioneers who appear on screen to sing Morgana's praises – on her journey from rural Victoria to urban Germany and back. And from the depths of misery to timeless body positivity.
Filmmakers: I noticed that your team's alternate street cred – i. H. They all come from the punk and / or erotic scene – which was crucial to the making of this film. I am only in doubt that while Morgana was a physical exhibitionist, she would have exposed herself so emotionally to "vanilla" filmmakers. So, did this commonality allow you to push Morgana beyond her well-cultivated personality, or did she just instinctively knock down her guard at her own pace?
Peppard: When Morgana initially agreed to let us tell her story, I think it helped that we were people who looked at kink and porn from an inner perspective. Even so, I think it was ultimately only our human connection and relationship that gave us the access we had.
Filmmakers: If Morgana gets into financial trouble after moving to Berlin, you are there to capture her after basically moving to Germany to keep filming with her. I think the film was completed through a combination of Kickstarter and government grants. But did you still have trouble raising funds at that point? How did the situation affect production?
Hess: As with many indie projects, our budget was cobbled together. We were self-funded throughout the shoot and completed the post-production with Kickstarter and a couple of small grants from Queer Screen and Screen Australia.
I ended up in Berlin with Morgana because I worked for her, made and edited her films. After she moved to Berlin in 2015, I made three films that she produced. I worked for her the whole trip and basically shot the footage for our documentary about my obligations to her. She was very kind to let me take the time of my own accord. It was pretty chaotic for a couple of weeks.
Filmmakers: Since BDSM et al. Fortunately, most kinky people have declined to be classified as a pathology and they hate to bring up any aspect that goes against the "safe, reasonable, and consensual" line lest they get an entire community back into the DSM manual to force. What concerns did you and Morgana have as they approached some of their fights that wouldn't necessarily be a third track in a non-kinking context?
Hess: I think like everyone else in the BDSM or kink scene, we mostly find the merging of mental illness and BDSM not helpful. We were very much aware of this when we were putting Morgana's story together. We knew that we had to treat it carefully and respectfully, but also that we wanted to show Morgana in her fullness and not shy away from her complexity, as she had expressed a strong desire to show people her life.
What do you do as a filmmaker? Are you not showing the character in their full light just because their narrative is not perfect and fits the way we would like life to be? That would be tantamount to having the same expectations of her shoulders that she experienced as a woman and a mother – but instead that she is the perfect sex positive pornstar. We have to show their truth. I hope that if we present it as it is, we will show that there are nuances and gray areas in people. And that's okay.
Peppard: This is definitely something we've talked about a lot! We were very concerned about not demonizing or pathologizing things that were already stigmatized: kink, porn, and female sexuality in general. From a storytelling perspective, our approach has been to integrate sexuality as much as possible into the character's personal and emotional journey. A big part of this was allowing the audience to really get to know her as a person before some of those riskier elements came into play, so you can really get a sense of how closely the sexual experiences are intertwined with their humanity and self-discovery.
Many of the portrayals of kink / BDSM in the film are associated with moments of great personal growth or transformation that culminate in something beautiful or revealing, as they really did for Morgana in her personal life. She orchestrated these experiences for herself in what she describes as spiritual, and that's partly why we handled them that way. We also wanted to make sure that we never associate her personal struggles with her sexual preferences, even though both things exist within her as a character.
Filmmakers: While it is exciting that Morgana touches so many lives through the camera, sometimes public attention still has a price to pay for her own wellbeing. Have you ever worried that you did more harm than good by making this movie? Were you forced to set certain limits?
Hess: I report to Morgana a lot. It's something she's been through with her own work and publicly appeared as a pornographer. When you lift your head over the parapet as someone who does things differently, no matter how harmless, it will always come with some negatives.
When we realized that this film wasn't going to be a short but a feature, we also discussed the possibilities with Morgana. She understands the weight and responsibility of standing there. Ultimately, we put the choice in her hands and she kept choosing to let her story be told. There are definitely limits protecting various elements that we have established with it. We just keep the dialogue between us very open and very honest. That way, there is always room to express yourself if someone is feeling uncomfortable or needs help.
Peppard: Yes, we've thought about that a lot. When we hit the scene, Morgana showed off her work locally, internationally and online and appeared on national television here in Australia to discuss her porn. So she was really present in public. I think we felt more comfortable telling Morgana's story in the context that she was already public with it and had "outed" herself to the world in a way she was comfortable with before we came.
The subjects she later deals with in our film were lifelong subjects for Morgana, starting out as a young girl. I don't want to speak too much for Morgana in this area, but I feel like her filmmaking and publishing her story has been a great redeeming force in her life. She had a very conservative and unhappy upbringing and marriage that she never fit into or felt like herself. She eventually became invisible and voiceless when she lost her "trophy woman" status. She was completely isolated from her pain – cut off from any community, creativity, sexuality or self-esteem.
After Morgana started making her films and going public, she found an open and loving community that she could fully accept as a person. She was able to reconnect with her own body and sexuality. And she found a creative voice that also inspired others around her.
Even so, we were definitely aware that we were negotiating respectful boundaries with Morgana to protect her and the people she loved. There were definitely places she didn't want to go with the story and people she didn't want to involve, and we always took care of her wishes in that regard. We also gave her permission to rough cut in case she had any significant problems with the way we told her story and the material it contained. She had a few changes, but nothing important, and I think that's because the process of filmmaking was an ongoing process of checking in with both her and each other.
Filmmakers: Do you see the film as a kind of “teaching aid” or guide in any way? Are you reaching certain groups?
Hess: We definitely didn't want to develop a teaching tool on purpose – we really just wanted to explore the truth of Morgana as a person. We have certainly heard feedback from some that it opens up conversations that we are very excited about. It has allowed a lot of people to make the connection that their parents or mothers are people with sexual needs, which is a nice thing to make people aware of. We also get many people grateful for the age-positive message that Morgana's personal key point she likes to make: "There is no expiration date for your sexuality."
Peppard: I don't think we ever saw the film as a teaching tool when we made it. It has always been more of a human journey, a hero's journey if you will. I think people pull out all the elements of the story that appeal to them the most on a personal level.
We were actually quite surprised at the diversity of people history has reached. We had some pretty emotional reactions from men, for example, which surprised us since it's a movie with so many subjects that seem specific to women. Maybe it was educational that way – than maybe pulling the curtain back on feminine desire and sexuality.
For me the film is the journey of an artist who finds her true identity and creative voice. In the film, Morgana goes through two cycles of death and rebirth. First, her conservative housewife identity is shattered and she is reborn as a phoenix, a beautiful but idealized version of the self that is ultimately a new facade. In the second cycle, where she is literally buried (on screen) and reborn, Morgana emerges as a more realistic and complete version of herself as she faced problems from her past head-on. Ultimately, she learns to be realistic about her struggles while continuing to make films and live in the world as an artist.