Mo Scarpelli talks to EWA about the making of her first feature film, A Song that Slays, approaching the theme of forced marriage.
It has been a long journey for “A Song that Slays”, the first feature film by Italian American documentary director Mo Scarpelli, with whom we met at Locarno Pro, where the project was selected by the co-development platform Alliance 4 Development. Earlier this year, Mo Scarpelli had received the European Women’s Audiovisual Network WEMW Award. The film originates from an oral legend of the Pokot Community in Kenya.
“The timing of When East Meets West in January was perfect” says Scarpelli, “it came right after the Less is More workshop in November, allowing us to take a break and focus on pitching and talking about the film with outsiders and right before Script Station, where we went after finishing the treatment and the first draft, and where we received important feedback from our script consultant, Selina Ukwuoma”.
With all this ‘hopping’ from one film forum to another (the two previous steps were the Thessaloniki Agora Film Meetings and the Novos Cinemas #Lab), the making of the film resembles the genesis of the story it tells: the oral legend of a girl who uses the mystery of nature to overcome the violence of man.
A legend that originates from the Pokot nomadic community in Kenya. Scarpelli met two girls who were sharing the story of a girl who ate a pink flower to escape a forced marriage through a song. A song that slays, as the title says, because the flower, which the girl ate after suggestion of the yomöt, the God of the Wind, was a poisoned one.
Will the film reflect the continuous changing of the song-story?
“Yes, it will, because it’s a tragedy, so I want to use the chorus to acknowledge the characters’ feelings to the audience, and to acknowledge to the characters that this is a story.
It’s a tragedy in which the catharsis is not embedded in the character’s demise, because the character transcends rather than descends. In fact, the protagonist eats the flower and dies essentially, but she disappears to become a part of nature with the wind gods”.
How did you come across this story in the first place?
“I was working on a short documentary project for an NGO in this area and I met some young Pokot girls. I learnt a lot about their nomadic community and they shared this story with me.
What I found so fascinating was that, even though normally people are really scared by the yomöt, a very scary God that can form tornados, kill or steal souls, these girls were reinventing it because they were struck by the idea that he could take them away. They used it to suit their needs, so I thought that the film could also be invented with them. As I’ve been writing, I’ve been going back and spending weeks in the community where they live, following their migrations.We are used to seeing things fixed on paper or in films, but this storytelling belongs to the oral tradition so it’s supposed to change continuously.”
“The EWA prize we received in Trieste at the When East Meets West Co-Production Forum energized us to go to the Berlinale Talents Script Station and finalize our material to apply for development funds.”
With your background in documentaries you are well equipped to keep up with that. Besides, you can count on a precious partner…
“Yes, I have a wonderful collaborator, Lilian: she is Pokot. She was raised in that community until her mother took her away so she could go to school and university. She later went back in order to help these girls and now she has her own community-based organization focused on female empowerment. She knows each of them by their names and their stories. She will play a role in the movie, besides being my translator and acting as a coach to the girls.
In fact, I want to use their own words in Pokot, and the relationships will be the real relationships between them.
Therefore, we are going to spend a lot of time together: it’s going to be a long pre-production process, but I really believe in it. I wouldn’t dare to say that cinema can solve things, but it can be a tool if we want it to be. I just want to create an environment for these girls which is safe for exploring things inside of them to be put in this song”.
What’s the audiovisual scene like in Kenya?
“It’s very strong, a lot of TV programs and commercials are being made. I am not interested in professional actors, though, because I come from the documentary genre and I love the organic process of working with non-actors. And, in this case, it is very important that it is a fictional film, because fiction in cinema can help open up a space for conversation about taboo topics. If people know it is a fictional story, they feel safer and freer to talk”.
You are using the narrative form of a tragedy, but the end of the story is also an act of freedom: could we dare to say that it has a positive ending, nevertheless?
“Well, it’s really sad, because it’s a comment on how this girl has no place in the world. But it’s also about transcendence, a longing that I had, and every girl has, I guess, when they are growing up and the world feels very turbulent and violent against them and their body, for a liminal space. A place where you can be yourself and don’t have to be noticed, nor put in a box to be defined, but just be undefinable”.
That’s exactly the same attitude you have towards gender balance policies in the Cinema…
“There is a lot of talk at festivals about choosing Women’s Films, but I don’t actually agree with this: I don’t want to be known as a female filmmaker, just a filmmaker. We are getting closer though, only a few years ago there were still these tremendous sections in festivals for Women’s Films. They shouldn’t exist, just like there shouldn’t be sections for native or black stories.
What we need is training and funding. And we need normalization.
There are so many things that have not been explored about being a woman: decision makers should be open to stories where women don’t fit in a box.
Actually, one of my favorite things about the EWA Award was that, this year, they decided to broaden the selection, not only to women directors, but also to other aspects of womanity presented in a film, such as the narrative, the representation of the characters, and so on….and they still chose my project!”
The film, produced by the Italian dispàrte (Luigi Chimienti and Alessandro Amato), will most likely start shooting in the first quarter of 2024:
“We need next year to finalize the financing of the production; I want to spend time with the characters in pre-production and do the casting and location scouting in very remote areas”.