Nicole Ma – Creating WOC Queer Visibility

Faculty shout-out from Joshua Yumibe: I’ve known Nicole pretty much since she started at MSU—and showed her some of those early morning black-and-white films she mentions (e.g. Killer of Sheep and Meshes of the Afternoon), as well as a whole cinematic world of color. Always incredibly perceptive and eloquent, one of my favorite class essays I’ve read in a while was a final paper she wrote on Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. Attentive to the film’s sonic palette as well its richly saturated hues, she brilliantly read it in relation to the formal experiments of Sirk’s earlier melodramatic work. As she argued, the selected saturated hues of Paris, Texas, worked not only to “represent the emotions the characters are feeling but more so to mask the emotions,” particularly those of the shell-shocked, and nearly mute Travis Henderson. This chromatic struggle between emoting and repressing, as well as speaking and silencing, gets to the melodramatic center of Wender’s remarkable film.

While I was so very aware of Nicole’s sharp skills at critical analysis, I’ve been stunned subsequently in getting to know her amazing work as a filmmaker. Her most recent short film, 会者定離 (Meeting People Always Separated), is as stylistically remarkable as it is politically engaged. The editing, cinematography, and color design of the film sparkles. Throughout, she demonstrates such a profound sensitivity to camera framings, and particularly close ups. My favorite shot of the piece is its final one, a young East Asian woman lays back on the hood of her car, stopped on a country road at dawn. There’s a certain Neorealist, naturalism to the beauty of this moment. It also encapsulates the film’s sense of loss, as in the midst of the pastoral beauty, she is about to be expelled from the country due to a reduction in foreign student visas. Against the broader political turmoil of the past year, the film works through the personal, accented experience of exile. The way that Nicole embeds this into the very formal texture of the film is stunningly effective. I am incredibly excited to see what’s next, as she begins the CalArts MFA Director program this coming fall.

How would you describe your time as an English or Film Studies major at MSU?

My time being a Film Studies student was worth every second. Even though the 8AM’s were slightly ruthless, especially if we were to watch a long Black and White old film, every film shown helped broaden and helped develop on what my style of filmmaking is today.

Which classes, instructors, or experiences particularly stand out for you and why? How did they prepare you for the next phase of your life?

My favourite classes being a Film Studies Major were Colour in Cinema, taught by Yumibe, Screenwriting by Bill Vincent and Directing by Jeff Wray. They stand out to me because those were the 3 classes that shaped what kinds of films I want to make, what filmmaker I want to be and what I want to show to the world. Which is why in my work, you can see that colour and lighting is important to me, as well as more of a raw dialogue, than the usual dramatics. Other than that, I was able to develop a closer rapport with those 3 professors, being able to not just talk about class work but also personal style and create a nice relationship to help guide my path of being a filmmaker.

What advice would you give future English or Film Studies majors, based on your experiences in the department?

Be friends with the professors. Some may be scarier than the others but I promise you they are mostly just as awkward as you are. They’re all amazing people with great taste in art, who will help you with your goals in almost every way and can give you advice if needed.

What coursework-related projects were/are you working on this year, and what interests or excites you about them? 

I worked on a personal short film and helped out with another short both in the middle of July of 2020 and I’m currently Directing MSU’s Fiction Filmmaking capstone thesis Film. It’s exciting to work with people I’ve known for the past few years, not as individuals who are helping with each other’s projects, but more of a collaboration of togetherness and knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses and being able to be there to support one another.

What are your hopes and aspirations, post-graduation? 

I’m currently planning to attend CalArts for my MFA in Directing but for my aspirations and hopes, I know it will all depend on my will power of how well I perform and achieve the next couple of years. But in a more ideal world, I would want to create more WOC queer films to destroy that perception of what a WLW relationship seems like in a heterosexual dominant society.

Please reflect a bit on the strange experience of being a graduating senior during the ongoing pandemic. What resources have been most useful to you in navigating this unprecedented situation?

I think the only good resource that has helped with this pandemic and graduating at this time is knowing that keeping a constant communication with friends and people I became friends with from classes is such a helpful tool regarding mental health. As well as the weekly Spartan Spit test to make sure everyone is health and safe, especially since my Thesis Capstone film class is filming in person, it’s important to also keep up and care about each other’s health.