The recent horrific revelations spilling out of Hollywood about Harvey Weinstein seem to have come as a shock to many. However, the abuses within the film industry have been an open secret for decades. Most people have chosen to ignore it, accept it or bury their heads in the sand. The same can be said for rape. It’s thought that over 90% of rapes go unreported. Those who do go to the police often find themselves and their lifestyles on trial. With prosecution rates criminally low, a misogynistic culture of victim-blaming and ‘slut-shaming’ prevails. Kirby Dick’s documentary The Hunting Ground unmasked an institutional attempt to cover-up rape on college campuses, but in truth it’s just a microcosm of wider society. Written by Leah McKendrick and directed by Natalia Leite, M.F.A. is a powerful treatise on power, rape, vigilantism and victim shaming.
Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) is an art student struggling to fit into college life and master her discipline. When she’s invited to a house party by Luke (Peter Vack), a handsome and charismatic classmate, she jumps at the chance. He proceeds to rape her. Traumatised, Noelle confides in her neighbour (Leah McKendrick) who advises her to drop it, the campus councillor turns the mirror back on her, and a rape advocacy group is more concerned with preaching self-protection than tackling the perpetrators. With nowhere else to go, she confronts Luke and accidentally pushes him over a bannister to his death. When there’s no suspicion of foul-play and after reading about other victims whose rapists got away scot-free, Noelle decides to take matters into her own hands.
M.F.A. is a very hard film to watch at times but it’s of vital importance. The inability of society to tackle the issue of rape culture within groups of young men and institutions being more concerned with their own reputations than protecting their students, are major blockers. M.F.A is beautifully made, both with a visual flair and a steady guiding hand. Eastwood is fearless and a major revelation. She’s destined for great things. McKendrick’s script takes no prisoners. No one gets an easy ride and in immersing itself in moral ambiguity is more interested in starting conversations than proposing solution. When you have nowhere to go, maybe you have no option but to fight? Minor quibbles aside, it’s a vital piece of cinema. M.F.A. enjoys making its audience uncomfortable. Both in the unflinching way it tackles rape, but mostly the uncomfortable questions it raises about the role we must play, both individually and as part of wider society, in prevention.