‘M.F.A.’ thriller takes on campus rape

The gritty feature film “M.F.A.” takes on the topic of campus rape with a vengeance.

The thriller, which debuted at SXSW this week, explores what happens to survivors of sexual assault through the story of an unlikely vigilante.

Noelle — an art student played by Francesca Eastwood — is raped by her campus crush in a violent, vivid scene. As a result, Noelle seeks revenge on rapists who walk free, which ultimately inspires her artwork.

The film is directed by Natalia Leite and written by actress Leah McKendrick, who also plays Eastwood’s next door neighbor in the movie.

McKendrick told CNN that several producers and studio executives cautioned that the film was “risky” — but she was determined to get it made.

“It comes from seeing your Facebook feed, every single day, the same story with a different girl being failed by our country and beyond,” she said during an interview in Austin, Texas. “Girls are killing themselves because they’re being bullied by the system, by their peers, by their rapist and nobody is there to speak for them when their voices are being taken away.”

McKendrick started writing “M.F.A.” in 2015. Examples of assault injustice continued to pop up in the news, like the case of former Stanford University student Brock Turner, who served a three-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious women. President Trump’s threats to sue women who had reported him for sexual harassment during his campaign further motivated McKendrick.

“It starts with our government, our President — and if they’re not living up to the standards we need, it’s up to us,” McKendrick said.

“M.F.A.” doesn’t attempt to provide solutions, but rather showcase the ways in which people — and women in particular — react to rape. Noelle’s female guidance counselor, for example, questions: “How much did you have to drink?Are you sure you said no and he heard you?”

Noelle joins a student group that aims to champion women’s rights on campus, but their approach falls flat.

“I really wanted to show how sometimes your heart can be in the right place, but are you really affecting actual change with the hashtags?” Mckendrick said.

The actor/writer partially drew from her own experience with sexual harassment at a casting audition years ago, when a director groped and kissed her without her consent.

“As a very young actress, I felt like nobody would protect me,” she said. “Trying to protect other actresses felt futile, too.”

McKendrick is looking for a distributor for “M.F.A.” and hopes — as more people see it — the film can transform attitudes about response to campus rape and sexual assault.

“I don’t consider myself a brave activist. I don’t have the answers. I don’t know what the solve is, but I knew that I couldn’t continue just reading the articles anymore.”

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