Interview by Tara Miller
AFO CONTENT WRITER
Nava Mau (she/her) is a filmmaker, actress, and cultural worker from Mexico City and San Antonio, Texas. Most recently, Nava wrote, produced, directed, and stars in “Waking Hour,” a short film about a young trans woman balancing her safety with her desire for intimacy. She appears next in the short film “Femenina.” Over the past 8 years, Nava has engaged in culture change work with community-based service providers, student organizations, and survivors of violence. Her long-term vision is to illuminate the stories of marginalized people in order to expand their access to resources.
As a student, Nava gained writing and production experience with live sketch comedy shows and Drawing the Shades, a play about survivors of sexual assault. She then joined Peacock Rebellion’s Brouhaha comedy program for queer and trans people of color in Oakland, California for two years. In 2016, she was a co-producer and co-host of the program, and she worked as a coach and featured artist in 2017. She was recently selected as the G&E Fellow on the set of the upcoming documentary "Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen," and serves as a producer on “Lovebites,” a short film currently in post-production.
Visit www.navamau.com for more about Nava.
Tara Sonali Miller: Tell us more about your film, “Waking Hour,” which premiers this week!
Nava Mau: “Waking Hour” is my baby. She has like 12 other parents, though. It’s a short film about a young trans woman who meets a guy at a party, and he invites her to go home with him. We get to see the contrast between what’s going on inside her head and what she shows on the outside. We also get to see the difference in this charming guy’s behavior before and after he knows Sofia is trans. I wrote, directed, produced, and star in the film, but it really has been a labor of love for so many people.
TSM: As an artist, what drew you to film? In what ways does it allow and limit, or challenge, your ability to express what you want it to?
NM: Well, I’ve been performing my whole life. It’s what my spirit needs, but it’s also how I’ve survived. I had to learn from infancy how to navigate spaces that could be hostile to me. I think film offers an opportunity to control that performance, and it allows for a type of storytelling that reaches people who I would otherwise never meet. I’ve always been attracted to the camera. I was lucky that my mom had an old video recorder at the house, and I made home videos with my sisters growing up. There’s something about the audiovisual medium that allows for expressing a feeling, a moment that is the result of complicated circumstances, the nuance of how people deal with each other. I think it’s important for marginalized people to be able to communicate via film, because we’re so often misunderstood. Only we know what it’s really like to live as ourselves, so film presents an opportunity to share pieces of how we feel, how we love, and how we live.
The challenge with film is that it is the most expensive visual artform. It is so hard to make even the simplest scene look, sound, and play out the way you envision. It takes a lot of people, resources, and time. So you just don’t get to make a lot of film. Does that make sense? You kind of have to pool all your energy and focus and support into this one thing, so that thing better be worth it, because it’s not like you can just make a movie every day. For example, I’ve been working on “Waking Hour” from writing to distribution for two years now, and it’s just a 12 minute tiny-budget short film.
TSM: Who or what inspired you to make this film?
NM: The story of Sofia and Isaac lived inside me for about a year before I finally wrote the script. I’ve had lots of different experiences dating as a trans woman. Things have been shifting for me pretty much nonstop for the past 5 years, and one thing that happened relatively recently is that people assume that I’m cis when they first me. It’s been hard to figure out how to deal with that. I also got to experience for the first time in my life what it’s like when a straight cis man thinks you’re a straight cis woman and he is very attracted to you. They just treat you different. It’s like, whoa, you think I’m a human with thoughts and feelings worthy of respect and admiration? I just haven’t had that for most of my life. Of course, I also had to learn that it’s often conditioned on the premise that he has a chance of having sex with you, and that’s where things get tricky.
I’ve had traumatic experiences with men, and I’ve had empowering experiences with men. I was inspired to create the character of Sofia based on who I was a few years ago when I was very much still figuring out how to navigate my new reality. It is terrifying to be in Sofia’s situation, and I’ve been in it so many times. I think that maybe cis people don’t realize that trans people are out here living full ass lives. We go to the grocery store, we have jobs, we’re at house parties. And we have love lives! People are attracted to us! We know that to be true, yet too often our experiences are affected by transphobia. I hope by now people are aware of the epidemic of violence faced by our trans sisters who are most vulnerable. It’s an intense problem and we need to continue mobilizing to address the violence against trans women of color. Even though Sofia is not the type of trans woman who is most at risk for violence, because she has certain privileges and protections like I do, she is at risk nonetheless. I wanted to convey what it feels like for a young woman like her to grapple with the conflicts of her reality.
TSM: What is a struggle you often find yourself coming up against, and how do you move past it?
NM: I have been dealing with a lot of self-doubt lately. It is hard for anyone to make it in this industry, and for me as a Latina trans woman, I have to knock down walls and pave roads just to get to a place where I can maybe, just maybe, lay down a foundation and start building a house. Luckily, there is a legacy of trailblazers and fighters who have made it possible for me to even consider this unbelievable dream. And there are so, so many people knocking down the walls and paving the roads together. But it’s hard. There’s a lot of sacrifices that come with this. I don’t have health insurance right now. I’m not available for people the way I would like to be. It’s a long game. You gotta have an immensely strong sense of confidence and self-determination to make it through. You have to convince yourself every single day that you have something to offer, and that your ideas are worth the struggle. You have to be almost delusional. All of that takes a lot of mental and emotional work, and I can’t afford to be dealing with self-doubt. But oof, it’s hard.
Am I really disciplined enough? What makes me so special? Why am I trying to get people to watch this movie that’s not even that good? When I going to start working out? Am I actually strong enough to withstand the forces of hate and competition? I have to literally shut self-doubt down with force. Beyoncé playlists, dancing, talking to myself out loud. Like that scene in Knock the House Down of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez giving herself affirmations before that big debate? That shit is real. It’s the only way. I’ve learned from so many brilliant women and gender non-conforming people that you have to boost yourself up, over and over, to keep yourself from falling.
TSM: What is your advice for other aspiring filmmakers or artists?
NM: I got two pieces of good advice from some famous people on the internet who I don’t remember now, I’m sorry I’m so bad with remembering sources! The first was for people who wanted to get into television writing, which was my primary goal for about 5 years before I realized I wanted to direct. This man who works in television said, “Go live a life outside of Hollywood.” I did that. I’ve done that several times. It’s actually all I’ve ever known, haha! But I needed to live in the Bay, outside the US, in Texas. I needed to be several different people. I’ve been a counselor, I’ve taught English, I’ve worked retail and food service. All these lives I’ve led mean I understand the world and I understand people better than I could if I had only ever spent time in one specific type of place.
The other piece of advice that stuck with me was simple. If you want to be a filmmaker, go make something. In my case, I decided to make “Waking Hour.” But I’m out of my mind. You don’t have to necessarily start so big. For example, I’ve also made an effort to use the video camera on my phone more. Instead of selfies, I’ve been playing with short video clips. I made a cool little scrapbook film for Instagram. There’s actually film festivals for films shot on smartphones now.
Get on a set. Work with other people. That is crucial. Learn how to talk to people. Recognize that you literally cannot do this work without working with hundreds, probably thousands, of people over time. We need each other, and collaboration is the only way to create good work.
For artists in general, I think it’s important to take care of ourselves and prioritize our craft. I consider “Waking Hour” my film school. There was no way I could take out more student loans to go to film school, so I did it this way. But the only way it has worked is by finding and building community to learn and create with. We can do this if we help each other!
TSM: Can you tell me more about the team that made this film happen? What has your collaboration looked, felt, been like?
NM: I was extremely lucky that I had someone to call when I decided I wanted to make this happen. I went to school with Chloe Webster, and we had previously collaborated on an interactive audio installation. She’s my friend, and I love her. I was nervous to make that call, though! Like, “Hi, do you wanna jump on this boat with me? I don’t really know how to steer it, and actually I’ve never been on a boat before.” I’m so thankful that she came on board as a producer. Here’s the thing: Chloe had never done something like this before either. “Waking Hour” has been an opportunity for a lot of people to stretch into roles we’ve wanted for a long time, but never felt like we were invited to have them. Chloe and I learned how to do a crowd fundraiser in like one week, and then we were fundraising and doing pre-production at the same time. We had one month.
I had another stroke of luck. I asked my friend out of the blue if she knew any cinematographers who were trans women of color. Literally out of the blue. My friend was just hanging out at my house, and she knew someone! A few emails, a phone call, and a lunch meeting, and then Aja Pop came on board like the pro she is. “Waking Hour” owes so much of its visual style to Aja. She and I quickly developed a language, and it honestly was not that hard for us to reach a shared vision. The fact that I got to work with another trans woman so closely on this project is just priceless. Aja loved the script, and she adopted this project as her own. I can’t imagine what “Waking Hour” would have been without Aja. She just knows how to make a scene look sublime yet feel so real.
Sowj Kudva was also a key member of our team. They edited the film, and I should clarify that Sowj edited both the picture and sound, plus handled sound mixing. They work in Philadelphia, so we’ve done this whole project remotely. Hectic.
Sowj is also someone who bonded deeply with the script, because they are queer, non-binary, and Desi. They said they feel like they’ve been working their whole life to work on a project like this. It was meaningful that both Sowj and Aja actually have spent many years honing their skills. In their positions, that’s really important. I leaned so much on them so much to make “Waking Hour” happen.
We technically had a small crew, but it was still about 15 people who came together for this. It felt magical to be able to work with my people! It was women, Black and brown people, queer and trans people. We did that shit. I’m so proud of us. A lot of friends came through, and a lot of new community was built. Shout out to all my friends who volunteered to be extras at the party! Y’all look so cute.
TSM: What artists have you admired for a long time? What kind of art is feeding you lately?
NM: Well, I’m just gonna start with Beyoncé. Okay? She is just the ultimate. The greatest. My queen. Her resolve, her talent, her sheer excellence. Her work ethic is the standard I hold myself to. I will never meet it, which means I’ll be working on it my whole life. I’m grateful for her.
I admire Ah-Mer-Ah-Su. She just has this spirit that is indestructible. She goes through so much shit, but she is somehow able to channel her energy into music, into making people feel joy, into serving hair, body, and face on the ‘gram. I just love her. She makes me feel like there’s a reason we’re all sticking around for this impossible game.
I’ve also admired other artists that commit themselves to making magnificent, exceptional art no matter how long it takes, like Kelela and Solange.
Obviously, I love music, and it feels connected to whatever writing, film, or acting I’m doing. I’ll attach a song to a mood or a memory and it becomes like a benchmark for finding my way. It’s a tough call between television series and music videos, but honestly, I think music videos might be my most favorite form of art. A good music video is like an orgasm that lasts 4 minutes. What more could you ask for?
TSM: Do you have support in your life for what you're doing?
NM: I’m so goddamn lucky to have my parents. They love me and they support me, and they always have. I decided to move back in with my parents in San Antonio for the past year, so I could have more flexibility to finish “Waking Hour” and now go into the festival run and online premiere. Family support is a privilege that a lot of people, especially queer and trans people, don’t have. It’s not like my parents are rich, but the fact that they are willing to let me live with them as a fully grown adult has allowed me to build this launching pad so I can shoot my shot in LA.
I’m also grateful for the vast network of sisterhood and friendship I have. It humbles me and it kind of baffles me that people have such capacity for love and care. There are people who can send me one text and it makes me want to stay alive and makes me want to fucking fight to keep this society from collapsing. It really is my relationships that motivate me to make art. I can only hope that I make people feel as connected, understood, and valued as they make me feel.
TSM: What are you excited to work on in the future?
NM: This year has been a year of firsts for me. I’ve learned so much from the projects I’ve had the opportunity to work on. I’m still working on producing “Lovebites” with Mia Garza and director Chinwe Okorie. We’re in post-production. I got to act in a short film by Ilana Mittleman called “Femenina,” which I’m really excited for people to see. Next, there are two short film ideas I’m playing with in my head. One of them needs to be in script form by the end of the month. My priority for now, though, is actually to find more opportunities to act. I want to play all sorts of characters. I want to do rom-coms, thrillers, stoner flicks. I want to find that one role that feels like it was written for me. Which means I might just have to write it for myself.
“Waking Hour” is available online Wednesday, May 15th, 2019. you can watch the film here. Follow Nava and her work on her website, Instagram, and Twitter.