There are a lot of powerful scenes in Mahaliyah Ayla O’s short film Masks, but it’s the sight of buzzing phones haphazardly discarded next to lifeless bodies that feels most striking. The scene is shocking, of course, but it also feels deeply familiar. Families, friends, and lovers desperately trying to reach the victims of mass shootings to see if they’re alive or not has unfortunately become as American as apple pie. What makes this moment in the film so powerful isn’t in the familiarity of it — it’s the story behind it.
Twenty-four years before she began to write the script, Aylo O became the survivor of a mass shooting at the age of five. It was in this distant moment and, more recently, in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting, that she found the inspiration to write the story of Saba, a young, closeted Persian-American woman who is caught in a mass shooting at a gay nightclub alongside her girlfriend.
For the gay filmmaker, bringing this character to life in her MFA thesis film for the USC School of Cinematic Arts was an empowering declaration of diversity. “I think the world is hungry for more perspectives and there’s this false idea that because we’re gay, we’re all the same,” she explained over the phone recently. “We have a lot of layers within the LGBTQ+ community and white men in that community just naturally because of socioeconomic reasons get to have more of a platform.”
We caught up with Ayla O as she celebrated Masks making it to the final round of NBC Universal’s Short Film Festival to talk about prayer, Pulse nightclub victims, and why we all need to remember to love each other.
OUT: Obviously this is based on the Pulse nightclub shooting, but what made you decide to take that event and create a short film based on it?
Mahaliyah Ayla O: I really didn’t plan on making this film after Pulse happened and it wasn’t a conscious process or something I immediately thought of doing. At the time, I wasn’t really focusing on directing while I was in film school. I was focused on cinematography but I write a lot so one evening it came out while I was writing. I’m actually a survivor of a mass shooting when I was five years old and I’m gay so I think that combination of those things manifested in the story I wrote that night — completely not intending to share it with anyone.
It’s a really incredible film so I’m glad it got shared. I wanted to talk about representation because often, we only see white gay men in narratives. It’s so refreshing to see a queer woman of color in a religious household. How did it feel to put that on screen?
Emotionally it felt extremely empowering. I think the world is hungry for more perspectives and there’s this false idea that because we’re gay, we’re all the same. We have a lot of layers within the LGBTQ+ community and white men in that community just naturally because of socioeconomic reasons get to have more of a platform. For queer women of color, our stories are not often given as much attention.
How has the audience response been after screenings of the film?
I’ve had a lot of really intense one-on-one conversations with people either immediately after the screening or they come up to me almost in a daze and then write me later that they want to talk. For people who’ve live closeted like I did for most of my life, there are a lot of emotions around that. I’ve got friends who are Jewish and Persian and in that community still and things are pretty intense for them — even in LA.
Emotionally, what was the hardest scene to film?
The nightclub was very very challenging. While making the film, I was constantly conscious of two things. The first was staying true to the characters’ experience within the story, but then also staying respectful to the real world experiences that the story is referencing. Throughout the process, I prayed often. Whatever your belief system is, I believe in connecting to spirits that have been taken so I asked for permission and guidance. I really hoped that we were doing a little bit of justice to the subject matter.
On the day we filmed in the club, the first half of the day was dedicated to creating a really fun environment. We wanted to be in the club and have a good time and bring that energy forward, but at the beginning of the day, I asked everyone to circle up and take a minute of silence because I wanted us to stay grounded in the fact that this is referencing real people and real lives lost. I wanted to make sure that that didn’t get forgotten in the hustle.
Have any of the Pulse nightclub survivors seen the film?
I haven’t had a direct contact and would love to have that opportunity. I haven’t really known how to go about starting that process and it’s really recent, too. I’m 29-years-old and survived a mass shooting when I was five and it’s still very vivid for me. I want to navigate that process in the most respectful way possible and not ask people to view this before they’re ready — they may never want to.
What is the message you’re trying to project with this film?
Even though LGBTQ+ rights have made a lot of strides in recent history, we still live in a world where we’re not all allowed to live openly. The Pulse nightclub massacre is just the most recent horrific example of that. More than a conscious thought, I hope people leave with a feeling of being more aware of other people in the world and a feeling of love and compassion. Also, just a reminder that no matter what identity you come from and what your reality is, all of our time here is limited and the most important thing, while we’re here, is to love each other.