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Morgana: An Interview with Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess

While porn has often gotten a bad rap from feminists over the years, a few women have worked tirelessly to change perceptions of female desire — and how that desire plays into art and performance. Key examples include porn and sex-positive performance artists like writer, actress, and sex educator Annie Sprinkle (whose title isn’t self-proclaimed; she holds a doctorate in the subject), as well as Cosey Fanni Tutti, perhaps best known for her years in the pioneering industrial band Throbbing Gristle, and fellow musician and artist Lydia Lunch. In the age of digital filmmaking and predominantly online porn, there’s suddenly a wealth of porn made by women for women, some of which challenges notions about gender, sexuality, the male versus female “gaze,” agism, and so on.

Enter Morgana Muses, a former housewife turned pornographer when her life fell apart after a divorce. She’s the subject of a near-complete documentary by directors Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess, who are crowdfunding Morgana: A Documentary Film with a planned release of sometime in 2018. In their words, “‘Morgana’ is an artistic character portrait of a troubled 50 year old housewife, who re-invents herself as a sex-positive feminist porn star after spending 20 years in a loveless, sexless marriage. 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.”

Peppard and Hess have been kind enough to chat with Diabolique about their project, how they came across Morgana herself, and more.

 

Diabolique: First of all, I love the idea of this project and I can’t imagine cult film fans (and erotica/hardcore fans) not losing their minds over it. I know you’ve mentioned that the ball got rolling because you were going to document a specific performance art piece Morgana Muses was doing, but what was your introduction to her and her work in general?

Josie Hess: I was in film school, trying to get this documentary about masturbation off the ground (the teachers weren’t having a bar of it — too edgy and vagina-filled, they said). I found out one of my lecturers was renowned pornographer Anna Brownfield, and I’d always been super fascinated by porn, so I emailed her and asked if I could help out on her next shoot. To my great excitement she said yes. I ended up helping her out on a casting call for Morgana’s next film, A Call for Help (2014), which is where I met Morgana for the first time. After that, I went home and googled her work and watched Duty Bound (2012) — I was hooked, straight away!

Isabel Peppard: Josie was already working with Morgana when I first met both of them. At that time I had no awareness of any of Morgana’s work or of feminist porn in general but I was intrigued by her story. The first time I saw one of her actual films was when we went to Sydney to document the giant bondage installation that she had commissioned for her 50th birthday. We were all in one large hotel room together and I remember her calling me over to the couch to watch the cut of her new film, I think it was New Tricks. It was an amazing and quite surreal experience watching a pornographic film sitting next to the director/star while also getting a sort of live directors commentary. I loved it!

Diabolique: What was her response to your interest in making a documentary? Obviously she said yes, but how did you first approach her and convince her to participate?

Josie Hess: Well, to be fair, none of us at the time knew where her story was going to go. We all thought maybe a short film, maybe a 15 minute thing. Morgana’s life kept taking all these unexpected turns and we just kept filming. We agreed about a year ago that it was to be a feature, Morgana was naturally a bit nervous but also really excited.

Isabel Peppard: I remember pitching to her in a cafe one night. We scheduled a meeting and were all sitting in a little booth together. I hardly knew her at that stage. We told her all the reasons that her story resonated with us and how we were going to treat it. After some thought and further conversation, she agreed to allow us to tell her story. It was partly because we were women and partly because she knew that we were coming from an inside, nonjudgemental perspective on kink/BDSM and porn. I remember leaving that meeting with a big smile on my face and a slight tingling feeling. I like to think it was the tingle of destiny!

Diabolique: How did you two come to work together on such a potentially large scale project?

Josie Hess: We met at a punk gig in Melbourne and kinda hit it off. I was a film student and working at Monster Pictures (a boutique horror distributor) at the time, and Isabel was an established filmmaker, having just come off the back of her hugely successful short, “Butterflies,” which she had screened around the world.  We just clicked, and started working together on various projects after that.

Isabel Peppard: I think at the time we didn’t quite realise the scale of the project. It was initially going to be a sort of short calling card film that would hopefully open up opportunities for us to make other commissioned work. We had no concept that the story of a housewife pornstar was going to spiral out into this epic character journey that was so rich and multi faceted and ended up taking us all over the world.

Diabolique: And why this one? How does the documentary tie into your own interests and themes you’re trying to explore in solo work?

Josie Hess: I’m super interested in the female gaze (so much so that I went head first into making porn myself) and the exploration of sex-positive feminism, using all the tools at our disposal to contribute alternative images and diversity of thought into the pornographic fray. I think most films I’ve made, porn or narrative, there is a bit of masturbation in there; it’s part of life.

Isabel Peppard: I guess for me I’m attracted to the dark, transgressive nature of the material, the extreme sexuality, the complex psychological world of the character and the opportunity to express those things creatively. Thematically, another of my major fascinations is the redemptive and transformative power of art. In Morgana’s case, she has spent her life cloistered in this dutiful domestic role and when it all goes to hell she is called by the opportunity to tell her story using pornographic film as a medium. And she does this, over and over again to the point that it is no longer a story simply about porn but it is the story of an artist finding her voice and expressing herself through film.

Diabolique: When can we expect a completed version of Morgana? And do you have any dream scenarios in mind for the film’s premier?

Josie Hess: Next year for sure, I think we’d love this film to get out to the widest audience possible, there is a message in it, about the redemptive power of art, and that you are never too old to start new, which seems really pertinent today given how ageism still exists in such a detrimental way and we have aging populations. We’d love to swan about on a red carpet of course, but really, the wider the audience the better the conversation we can contribute to!

Isabel Peppard: Definitely next year. Although you cannot rush a documentary edit, we feel that it really is a timely story and we want to get it out into the world at a time when the issues it discusses are cutting edge and relevant. That being said, it is more a character documentary than an “issue” film and character pieces tend to be timeless really. We would obviously love a big premiere but more than that just to get it out into the world to the biggest audience possible. I personally would also like to play genre fests as I love the community and had a great experience with my last film screening at some of those festivals.

Thanks Josie and Isabel! Find out more about Morgana: A Documentary Film and visit the Kickstarter page to contribute to this worthy and fascinating project.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She’s the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang’s M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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