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Interview with 2023 Archive of Documentary Arts Collection Award Winner – Gabriella Mykal

Post contributed by Shiraz Ahmed, curatorial intern for the Archive of Documentary Arts

Shiraz Ahmed, curatorial intern for the Archive of Documentary Arts interviews filmmaker Gabriella Mykal via email about her film “Rape Play”, one of the winners of the 2023 Archive of Documentary Arts Collection Awards. Since 2015, the awards have recognized excellence in documentary film, photography, and audio, with cash prizes and the chance to have a body of work archivally preserved and exhibited at Duke.

“Rape Play” (2023) by Gabriella Mykal utilizes experimental techniques to explore how a genre of online erotica has troubling ramifications for young women. At times surreal and eyepopping with its colorful aesthetic, the film addresses this difficult topic with humor and a playfulness reflective of a new generation of filmmakers.

The other winners for 2023 include:

Resita Cox | Film| “Freedom Hill” navigates the environmental racism washing away a North Carolina town of under 2,000 residents.

David Fisher | Film | “The Round Number” explores why and how the number six million was written into the canon, and what its meaning can teach us about the Holocaust.

Holly Lynton | Photo | “Meeting Tonight” portrays a historical worshiping community and its evolving traditions in contemporary rural South Carolina.

This Q&A has been lightly edited.


Shiraz Ahmed: What was the starting point for “Rape Play” when you realize this teenage pastime was a larger phenomenon worth of examination?

Gabriella Mykal: “Rape Play” had a false start in 2020 and it took me about a year to get on the right track. The first try was supposed to be a video installation where the visuals involved endurance performances that represented the experience of healing as durational and intentional and efforted. The audio for the installation was going to be interviews with women around me, trusted friends, talking about past experiences of sexual dysfunction and violence.

It just wasn’t working because the approach was not sustainable. The subject matter was too intense, the research too traumatizing. Initially, I was only working around the premise of sexualizing violence. Trends in porn. Visceral assault stories. There was no humor, no lightness to the work. And I realized the form the work was taking was missing the thing I found most interesting about the interviews I was conducting: the tone. These conversations were hyper casual, filled with laughter and speaking in shorthand. I realized the project needed to speak that language, and I needed a point of entry that allowed me enough distance from the subject matter to make my observations without being overwhelmed.

Fanfiction and erotica kept coming back up. Every time we were searching for an analogy, looking for a way to contextualize an abusive ex-boyfriend or a confusing hook up, we would start by saying, “Do you remember reading this fic?” “It’s like this trope.” And we would laugh at the references, and then we would say, “Yes, exactly, I know exactly what you mean.” It became apparent that we all seemed to be moderating and understanding our most intimate experiences through these niche media bubbles. The film needed to look through the same lens.


The film’s first scene involves creative use of dramatization and colorful set design. Why use this particular, playful approach for a topic that gets gradually more serious as the film goes on?

I wanted to intro the audience immediately to the text, because if you’ve never read erotica, fanfiction in particular, the film is sort of meaningless to you. The opening aims to immerse the viewer in some of this context, and then disrupt that immersion to take the viewer into a new imagination, this fictitious interview based on these almost ridiculously light conversations about something so heavy.

Visually, I can’t claim having any kind of formal reason for the playful design choices. I just had this image in my mind. Blue walls. Red carpet. A bedroom that’s sparse and strange on a set. I wanted the set design to speak to the imagination and the strangeness that is inherent in written erotica, which is to say, for all the details you might be filling in while reading, there’s also a great deal of blanks left. The blue room is an imagined liminal space of desire and trauma.


You interview a number of women who have experience with this genre of erotica, including the actress in your staged scene. How did you approach these individuals and what were you hoping they would gain from this documentary experience?

The process of making this film was a real community effort. The pitch was, “I’m making this film about fan fiction and how it changed my brain chemistry.” I was lucky to find a community of women and queer people who resonated immediately with the subject and wanted to be a part of it.

Everyone I interviewed was not only willing but excited to be open and have these conversations that, when had off camera, are incredibly constructive and healing. Of course, it’s very daunting to have them on camera, so we discussed what we were comfortable with and not comfortable with a great deal before.

What I hoped people would gain by participating was that constructive healing experience that I have when having these conversations, which is to truly relate and level with another person that is coming from a similar place. I think the tone and content of the interviews in the film comes from the fact that you’re watching conversations between dear friends who have a great deal of trust in each other. Putting that on camera, infusing the film with that energy was paramount, that magical bedroom culture that’s created and cultivated by women of all ages constantly. A radical, self-effacing authenticity. A fearless self-exposure.

You often employ clever cinematic techniques that mislead the viewer as to what direction the film is headed in. How do these techniques relate to the overall topic, questions and message you want the film to deliver on?

The thesis of the film is that we have a very complicated relationship to these materials the same way that we have a very complicated relationship to our actual sexual experiences, positive and negative, so the film takes on that complicated relationship. Sometimes it’s highly critical and sometimes it’s celebratory. Oftentimes it’s somewhere in between, or it’s doing both at the same time.

I wanted the film to follow a lineage of meta-modern hybrid docs where the complicated nature of the subject matter informs the film’s ability to “level with you” or to pretend like it’s leveling with you. I’m personally not very interested in documentaries that ever claim to be fully truth telling. I think that docs that use some of these prototypical, historically anthropological formal techniques to allow them credibility are sort of short cutting having to really convince you of anything.

And I think, best case scenario, it’s just the most direct way to go about making nonfiction media, but worst-case scenario, it’s in very bad faith. I wanted “Rape Play” to take a form wherein the content is always in good faith, but the presentation is playful. So, the film is going to, in one moment, make you think that it’s scripted, then make you think that it’s not. Then it’s clearly scripted, but it feels very honest. Then, it’s obviously not scripted, but it’s also highly edited. And then of course there’s the ending sequence in which I talk about a personal experience of sexual violence and the sequence is both deliberate and planned and off-the-cuff.

The film runs on an engine in which the same questions we interrogate ourselves and each other with surrounding sexual violence (is this true, is this valid, is she exaggerating, is she withholding and if so, what?) are reveled in, but deliberately not answered in a way you would expect.


Your choices of interview settings – mostly women’s bedrooms, including your own – play a particular role in this film. What were you hoping for these settings to evoke for the subject and the viewer?

The intuitive choice suddenly became, “I should be talking to these girls in their rooms.” Of course, there are two exceptions. Victoria’s interview, which is outside in the same backyard as her scene, and Avalon, who is interviewed in the blue room set from the opening of the film.

The formal argument is that the film, specifically the essay portion that sets up a great deal of the context for these online subcultures that we’re talking about, is deeply invested in discourse and research surrounding bedroom culture amongst teenage girls and how you can effectively call the teenage girl bedroom a hub of cultural production. Across the world, in their respective private domains, these girls are creating assets that they then put into this egalitarian free market for each other in a share economy. I was one of those girls that was sitting in my bedroom online, producing and receiving for years. In a way, I’m still one of those girls; this film was made largely by me, sitting alone, writing and editing in my bedroom. The film hops between intimate spaces, imagined and real, at the rapid pace and leisure that one might experience being online.

Also, the nature of these conversations was extremely intimate, and I wanted to host them in the spaces that people felt the most comfortable. I wanted the viewer to feel like they were really sitting in the room with us having these conversations, like you’re lying in a friend’s bed half asleep, listening to two friends giggling late into the night about the worst things that have ever happened to them.


The denouement of this experimental essay film has you revealing your own troubling experience with sexual violence. How did you come to the decision to include this material and why did you employ the technique of fictional reenactment for the conclusion?

To me, it felt not only apparent but completely necessary from the moment that I started this project that anything I asked someone else to be willing to do for the film, I needed to be willing to do. If I was going to ask my friends to recite stories about some of these things that have happened to them, I was also going to recite stories about some these that have happened to me. If I was going ask to my friends to be in it, then I would be in it.

I also felt that it would maybe not make any sense if I never told that story. The thing that had finally propelled me into making the film, the moment of clarity I had about what the real entry point was, was not only that these erotic materials that I had been taking in at such a rapid rate when I was younger seemed to thematically speak to this question of how we deal with learned or inherent sexualization of this kind of violence, but that how I grew up online and then what happened to me were completely intrinsically linked.

There was a direct logic there in which it was set up à punchline. I could not understand one without understanding the other. The film then had that same logic and it had to be explained fully from my perspective to finish the argument.

The idea of reenactment was there from the beginning because reenactment also felt totally thematically in line with the premise of imagination and fantasy. The premise that these materials are not “real” so how do we make them look as “real” as they feel. We’re, I would argue, reenacting them in various ways all the time. From there, I became interested in a question: say this traumatizing thing happens to me because in a kind of abstract way, I was trying to enact some of these things from fictions that I had read… How can I repurpose the power of enacting, to act out, to embody, to play? And how can we use that to heal?

I had no interest in using that power of play to relive the traumatic event. Instead, I returned to an obsessive fantasy that had nothing to do with my assailant and instead had everything to do with reconnecting with myself and the people around me. It was a fantasy of resolution. It was a fantasy of moving on.

If we have these two reenactments, one at the beginning and one at the end of the film, then the beginning is what I once would have thought would be the fantasy of how we can use these texts, then the end of the film is a new imagination of how we can use these texts. We don’t just reenact them, we expand on them, and in that expansion, we release ourselves from them.


As part of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, “Rape Play’” will be available for researchers interested in its construction as much as its content. What has working on the film taught you about the form of documentary and its utilization and ability to reveal uncomfortable truths?

Making “Rape Play” taught me a great deal, maybe too much to put into words, but I’ll say this. Documentary is a playground. Documentary is a stage and a therapist’s office. A courtroom. A long car ride. A bunker and a kitchen table. Documentary owes us shock and laughter and discomfort and embarrassment and outrage, but above all else, Documentary owes us truth. We make non-fiction work to debase, self-efface, expose, explain, illuminate, and confuse because the world as we live in it and our lives as we live them are already strange and dense enough as it is. We do the work because it is honest, if not draining and frightening, work, looking and pointing, describing, and criticizing. Documentary, when done right, is the work of not only revealing, but dissecting and living with uncomfortable truths until the alien and the confusing becomes the familiar and the understood.

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