At a non-descript party rife with red Solo cups and 20-something exuberance, Waking Hour protagonist Sofia meets a charming and sexy would-be suitor named Isaac. She quickly racks her brain trying to determine his intentions for the night. Is it just a physical vibe or could there be something more? And if she already has all of these questions, when and how will she ever tell him that's she's a transgender woman?
Over the course of 11 minutes, trans Latina actor and self-taught filmmaker Nava Mau takes viewers on a journey through the varying degrees of desire and the precariousness of rejection when dating while trans in her debut short film. Powered by a crowdfunded micro-budget (accrued by 134 donors) and numerous volunteers, when Waking Hour was released earlier this year it defied odds and garnered acclaim. And in March, the film was selected by Outfest Fusion for the Latinx and Chill shorts program.
"This story is very personal to me, yet Waking Hour has become personal to more people than I could have imagined as a first-time director," Mau revealed in statement released after its initial debut. "Though the film revolves around a Latina trans woman's experience, many of us can hopefully relate to its questions about integrity, consent, and fear."
In honor of today's online premiere, Out discussed the creation of Waking Hour and what's to come for the 26-year-old filmmaker on the rise.
Which experiences did you draw on from your own life to create Waking Hour and the character of Sofia?
There are two answers to that. The first regards the story itself, which lived inside me for about a year before I wrote it down on paper. I had recently started dating straight, cisgender men and as a trans woman I was not prepared. I had to learn a lot of hard lessons when I started dating straight cis men. Waking Hour was inspired by personal experiences I've had, but I wanted it to end differently than how a lot of my stories have ended. I wanted Sofia to be a character who realizes in the moment that she can exercise choice because so often I have not realized that I have the power of choice. And I know that's the case for a lot of people.
Which types of stories in media resonate with you and how did they influence the vibe you were going for with Waking Hour?
I have known for a long time that I want to tell stories in film and television. I wanted to practice writing, directing, producing, and acting -- and I got to do that with this story. Something that inspires me a lot are music videos and I discussed them often with Waking Hour director of photography Aja Pop and the editor Sowj Kudva. We really borrowed from the feel, look, and sound of music videos like Gwen Stefani's "Cool." There's something about the way that straight and white people have been able to have nuanced depictions of their personal lives, struggles, and love-lives on screen. It's those types of stories that I feel are missing for queer and trans people and me, specifically, as a trans Latina. I wanted to create something colorful, exciting, edgy, and that had a lot of feeling to it.
The film's ending is somewhat ambiguous because there's a twist that trans women know very well, but that a cisgender audience might not expect. Could you expound on that complicated moment in the film and how it ties to the often thin divide between being desired and being affirmed in your womanhood?
A lot of cis people do not understand what it's like to be a trans woman. Some would say it's impossible to understand unless you have that experience. I think complexity and confusion of trans women's interactions with their lovers came out in the story. In this case, Isaac still has desire for Sofia after she discloses that she's trans and obviously he's going through his own process of shame and stigma in expressing his desire. He still expresses his desire, it's just that he does it in a different way than he was doing it before. For Sofia, this means that it no longer feels like she is safe or respected as a woman and a person. I think in this story we see that Sofia has desire in Isaac, she's definitely interested in sex and attracted to him, but that wasn't enough for her to accept the type of sexual experience that Isaac was offering. The audience is left with the question of who would end up truly enjoying the experience.
It's clear that Isaac's motivations shifted dynamically throughout the course of the film. Could you share what went into creating his character and bringing him to life in the film?
I imagined him as that guy in the party that lights up the room with a smile on 1000 percent. And if you're into men, you almost feel kind of lucky that he's talking to you. In my experience, many times that energy doesn't carry over into a long-term relationship with a man. It can be hard to get men to keep up that type of energy. Something I have experienced is what I call the "drop." It's when a man has been putting on a certain type of performance in order to impress or seduce a woman and at some point he drops the act. I think when it comes to trans women it often happens immediately after she comes out to him. In the film, this meant that Isaac felt he no longer had to pretend or act like he respects Sofia. He no longer has to act like he's interested in her thoughts or in her as a whole person. Once that act is dropped, his intentions became much clearer.
You played many roles in the creation of Waking Hour from acting to producing to directing. Would you say that you had a favorite role?
I like directing and that's what I see for myself in the long-term, but acting in this short film really reminded me that I love it and it's something I want to do more of. In the year since we've shot this short film, I've decided to pursue and prioritize acting at this stage in my career. I'm definitely being strategic about my career. For now I'm focusing on my acting, but long-term I think directing will feed my soul the most.
In March, Waking Hour was named a final selection for Outfest Fusion's Latinx and Chill. What did that accomplishment feel like for you as a first-time director and producer?
It was an honor because I got to attend and see films created by other people that were also selected for the festival. I was blown away by people's talent, dedication, and vision. I got to meet other filmmakers and I still kind of can't believe it. It also makes me feel very proud because there have been so many people involved in this project. Some of them volunteered their time and resources and it makes me happy to be able to celebrate with them.
With such a major start, there's sure to be more to come from you. What can people be on the lookout for?
I recently acted as Nina in a short film called Femenina by a director named Ilana Mitteman. I'm very excited about that project which is about a cis male boxer who starts training a trans woman who wants to learn how to box and they fall in love. Shooting that film was really beautiful and I can't wait to see it and for the rest of the world to see it. I am also producing a short film by Chinwe Okorie called Lovebites. This story is the type of story that was meant to be on film. It uses split-screen storytelling, so the characters and the audience are going to have to be super tuned in.
As you continue in the film industry, what are some of the stories you're still hungry to see and be a part of elevating?
I want to see queer entaglements on-screen. My life is full of that sort of thing. Friends dating each others' exes, friends falling in love, and roommates getting tangled up in romantic, financial, and other types of drama. I want to see people thriving in queer friendships and relationships, people finding joy and safety within each other's arms and homes. I want to see people of color. I want to continue to see people that we have historically not seen on-screen. That's a long list of people, so that means there's a lot of work ahead.