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(The 2017 SXSW Film Festival opened on March 10 and ran all week until March 18. HtN has you covered and GUARANTEE more coverage than any other site! Check out this review of director Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. which Don Simpson says is a “must see.”)

Films about rape are never easy to watch. Director Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. is certainly no exception to that rule, however it is one of the few that I would consider a “must see.” Why? First, because it seems to present the circumstances and aftermath of what is likely an all-too-common rape scenario with astute realism. Secondly, it finds a clever way to empower the victim and establish the moral ambiguities of right and wrong.

The topic of college rape, specifically by athletes and rich kids, has been far too prevalent for way too long. (If you’re unfamiliar with this epidemic, I highly recommend reading Jessica Luther’s Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape.) All too often, colleges end up demonizing the victim, accusing them of lying, putting them on trial. It becomes a he-said-she-said scenario, in which the athlete/celebrity always seems to win. “Did anyone see what happened?” “How much did you drink?” “Did you explicitly say ‘no’?” Not only is it demoralizing and patronizing, but it exponentially worsens the psychological torment of the rape itself. Most importantly, it establishes an environment on campus that says that rape is acceptable. No wonder rape has become so commonplace! Okay, maybe it has always been commonplace, but at least people are finally starting to discuss it. And, yes, I could stay on this soapbox all day, but let’s get back to M.F.A.

Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) is our protagonist. She is a M.F.A. student who is struggling to find her voice. An early scene shows Noelle getting aggressively criticized by her peers and professor (Marlon Young). The relentless chorus attacks Noelle’s self-confidence, instills fear, and rips away her [creative] power. (Whether this is an allusion to art school critiques being like rape is totally in the eye of the beholder.)

It isn’t really a spoiler to say that Noelle is violently raped. She tries to report the crime to her college administration but gets absolutely nowhere, so she opts to confront her attacker face-to-face. Noelle is subsequently catapulted into vigilantism, as M.F.A. creatively showcases how the campus prioritizes violence against men in comparison to sexual attacks upon women. All the while, Noelle’s experiences inform her art. So if there is one positive takeaway, it is that Noelle evolves into the messy, ugly artist that her professor advises her to become.

– Don Simpson (@thatdonsimpson)

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