“I couldn’t imagine you’d be 63, still in a state of wonder and curiosity about who you are and who you’re becoming,” director, writer, and producer Patricia Rozema tells me over Zoom from her home in Toronto. “I once had a playwright say, ‘all your works about belonging and not belonging.’ And I thought, that sounds true, but isn’t that everyone’s?”
Last month, two of Rozema’s films, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and Mouthpiece—her debut feature film and most recent release, respectively—were added to streaming service MUBI’s curated catalogue. The films were made 31 years apart and for Rozema, they represent two sides of the same coin. “I do think that both Mermaids and Mouthpiece, kind of bookends at the moment, reveal a woman at odds with herself,” Rozema reflects. “You know, they have very conflicting internal voices.”
Mermaids premiered in 1987 at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Prix de la Jeunesse as part of the Directors’ Fortnight programme—the first English-language Canadian film to receive an award at the prestigious festival. A character study about feminism and a deeply compassionate exploration of the female experience, Mermaids stars Sheila McCarthy, Paule Baillargeon, and Anne-Marie MacDonald as three women succeeding and struggling to find their place as artists.
“I was each of those characters and they’re all at odds with each other and really different,” Rozema muses. “One is uncomplicated and loves making things. The other one would so love to make something exquisite—a masterpiece—but worried that they can’t. And then the other one is a child. Just someone on the outside who loves [creating] but can’t play the game properly.”
The film was a huge success for Rozema. It was honoured by film festivals, critics, and award ceremonies the world over and since its release, the film has amassed $10 million in worldwide box office receipts.
Since Mermaids, Rozema cemented herself on the Canadian and international film scenes as a director and writer to watch. Her interpretation of Mansfield Park was lauded for its refreshing look on Jane Austen’s classic, emphasizing sexuality and raising issues concerning the slave trade. Rozema then offered an intelligent take on the pre-teen coming of age tale in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, and examined the bonds of sisterhood in Into the Forest.
In her most recent film, Mouthpiece, Rozema examines grief and womanhood in an adaptation of a piece by Toronto playwrights and actors Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava—both of whom star in the film. Similar to Mermaids, Mouthpiece focuses on the complexity of womanhood and takes a deep dive into the mother-daughter relationship.
MUBI released the two films as a double feature, which Rozema was delighted by. “I felt as free making Mouthpiece as I did making Mermaids. And I felt as willing and wanting to break the rules on both of them,” Rozema recalls. “Just see how it works and trust that the intention is true enough that it’ll still work.”
Most of Rozema’s work is centred around what it means to be a woman, and while early in her career she bristled at the idea of being labelled a “female director” or a “lesbian filmmaker”, she has since embraced these titles.
“I was always out in my life. But I made a distinction between being out in my life and not [in my career]. Maybe if I had been more brave, I would have been more out earlier. And I do applaud people like Anne-Marie MacDonald, who was much more vocal and [came] out earlier,” Rozema tells me. “But I knew that the field I had chosen was expensive. And I needed to get millions of dollars from people.”
Rozema feared she would be pigeon-holed as a director with financiers expecting her to only make female-centric, anti-male films. “I thought I was gonna only be able to do lesbian stories—which I love, but I knew that I was interested in all kinds of worlds and all kinds of people. And I wanted to keep that open. So I was afraid that my artistic choices would be severely limited if I talked about myself, and then I thought, it’s not about me. It’s about the work.”
She continues: “So I did come out eventually, but I wish I’d done it earlier. I feel like it would have been braver to come out earlier. But I did it as soon as I could. I thought, be brave in the work. Save all your bravery for the work and then just get people’s hands and voices off of your life. So yeah, I was resisting the labels. But that was just fear. Now at this section of life, I think, embrace it all. Just say what you are. Don’t give a moment’s breath to other people. Because people are gonna flap their gums no matter what you do. If you’re someone interesting, and you’re someone with an opinion, then there will conceivably be talk. Ignore it. Just ignore it. Assume they’re gonna say awful things, and then you’ll be fine when they say nice things, you know? Assume it’s going to be awful and then you can only go up from there.”
Rozema also acknowledges that part of her acceptance of these labels is due to society’s progress. “Society has accepted what I am,” she says. “I would like to say, oh, all this internal growth happened. But in fact, the world is a little bit easier with my kind now, so it’s easier to be yourself.”
Another aspect of progress Rozema ruminates over is the role of women in the world, as evidenced in Mouthpiece, which considers what mothers expect of their daughters and how their mother’s expectations influenced them.
“My mother couldn’t go to university, but our brothers could. That made her crazy, because she loves learning. She went back to get her BA [Bachelor of Arts] when she was 53. And as soon as she graduated, she died,” Rozema tells me.
In contrast, Rozema’s 26-year-old daughter has been given every opportunity regarding higher education. She’s currently in Munich studying to be an opera singer and has also completed an internship at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Rather ironically though, Rozema’s daughter is more drawn to the so-called “traditional role” of a woman: “She’s really drawn to being a mom. She really loves babies, she really loves sewing, she loves to make a pie. And she feels this terrible grief that, people like myself, although I never feel like I fought for anything, I just did it—but my mom for sure had to fight for things and swaths of the female population that are more organizing and activist oriented. She feels like she’s letting those people down if she doesn’t go out and have a career.”
“I said, ‘honey, the fight was not that you have to work—the fight was that you get the choice’,” Rozema says with a laugh.
Rozema is a filmmaker whose life experiences have beautifully aligned with her filmmaking. And while it’s been nearly 40 years since her entrance onto the scene, her enthusiasm for the work has yet to be dampened—challenges ahead be damned.
“I’m never going to say, yeah, I made movies for a while and I just got so good at it, I got bored,” Rozema says, tongue in cheek. “That’s never gonna happen. I’m never going to say, yeah, I explored everything it had to offer and did it all. There’s definitely ageism, I think to some extent, but I’m choosing to ignore that the way I chose to ignore that there was sexism. I’m just gonna carry on with my plans. We’ll see. We’ll see if that works.”
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