“Naomi and the Reckoning” is a new experimental film based on a novelette by artist, actress, and writer Christine Sloan Stoddard. “Naomi & The Reckoning” tells the story of a newlywed woman named Naomi who is struggling with body acceptance and her childhood immersed in purity culture as she attempts to find sexual satisfaction. The story, which was originally published by Finishing Line Press, was turned into a film that runs for less than 40 minutes yet packs a punch due to its eloquent prose, symbiotic imagery, and the excellent narration of actress Donna Morales.
Christine Stoddard is a Salvadoran-American writer and artist creating books, films, plays, murals, and more. She founded Quail Bell Press & Productions which includes Quail Bell Magazine. She has authored several books, such as Heaven is a Photograph, Desert Fox by the Sea, and Water for the Cactus Woman, among others. Previously, she was the first-ever artist-in-residence at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in Manhattan and an AnkhLave Arts Alliance fellow at the Queens Botanical Garden. She is a graduate of VCUarts and The City College of New York. Her first feature film is Sirena’s Gallery but “Naomi and the Reckoning” is her most recent film project.
Christine recently discussed her experience writing this story, and creating the accompanying film, via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you think up the character of Naomi and form her story in your mind?
Christine Sloan Stoddard (CSS): I’m not Catholic but I worked at a Catholic newspaper for about a year. Mainly, I covered immigration news as it related to the Catholic Church and, in many ways, it was a very good job. One thing that made the job frustrating, however, was my regular exposure to purity culture. I was only vaguely familiar with it prior to starting that job. It’s an entire philosophy and body of rules concerning sex and sexuality. According to this way of thinking, remaining “pure” isn’t only about refraining from sexual activity but even sexual thoughts. Purity culture is sexist because the onus is on women; we’re supposed to be the guardians of purity. Women are taught to closely monitor their clothing, their movements, and their mannerisms so as not to inspire sexual thoughts in men. There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the gist of purity culture.
On the job, I met a woman who was the same age as I was at the time. She was in her mid-20s and also set to get married soon. However, unlike me, she had extremely limited knowledge about sex. I’m not claiming to be some kind of sex expert, but I see the disconnect between our sexual education and our sense of self and I felt horrible for her. I couldn’t imagine knowing so little before entering a life-long union with such an emphasis on sexual reproduction. Catholics are supposed to have oodles and oodles of babies! After I left that job, I continued following that woman on social media for a bit. Lo and behold, less than a year after she got married, she posted a pregnancy announcement.
I thought a lot about this woman and her perspectives on sex did stimulate my creative juices. I kept pushing and shaping our conversations into a character and Naomi was born. I wrote the story that became the bulk of the book, Naomi & The Reckoning (Finishing Line Press), in 2017. Then the book became an audiobook and now the audiobook is a film. Just out here using those English and Film degrees!
MM: Are any parts of this story reflective of your own personal experiences as a young bride?
CSS: Naomi and I are very different women with very different backstories, but I will say this: Our society is still not very open about the inner workings of marriage. Most conversations center on the wedding, not actually being married. The day-to-day journey is a huge departure from a single day that’s basically a party. We’re doing young women (and men!) a huge disservice by not having more frequent and public conversations about what marriage can look like.
MM: Naomi has a cleft palette, so what made you decide to give her this condition?
CSS: In my personal life, I had people close to me who were born with cleft lips or cleft palettes. Over the years, I had conversations with them about what that meant for them and I did my own research into birth defects. I wanted to choose a defect that was relatively common but still alienating. When crafting the character of Naomi, I decided that she had to feel like an outsider. People who wait until marriage to have sex are outsiders, similarly to how people with certain birth defects are outsiders.
MM: Self-image and body shame is a prevalent theme in this story. How do you think these sometimes-self-imposed mental constructs can be dismantled?
CSS: I don’t think they’re totally self-imposed. These constructs are systematic. From the time we are little girls, women are socialized to feel that we should look a certain way. It’s in our pop culture, our art, our literature, our media—everywhere. We have to change social standards to empower women collectively and individually so that they feel more comfortable with their looks but also properly prioritize them. While I love fashion and makeup, I’m well aware that I have more to offer the world than my physical appearance. I try to move confidently in life with this knowledge and direct my attention and energy toward my creative work, my community, and my personal relationships. Still, it’s hard. Resistance is never easy. Being a strong woman is not easy. I try to own my power every single day and it never gets any easier. I think what’s gotten easier is my acceptance of the reality that this is how the world is. I shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Pretending would do myself a disservice. I can’t prepare for battle if I pretend the battle doesn’t exist.
MM: Writing explicitly about sex can still be regarded as taboo, so did you ever feel awkward while crafting this tale?
CSS: I don’t feel awkward talking about sex except in front of people who try to make me feel awkward about it. Sometimes they succeed, though that’s becoming a rarer circumstance. I think it’s important to talk about sex, though I’m not a huge fan of laying out the details of my personal history and experiences for just anyone. I appreciate discretion regarding my private life. We can’t overcome societal problems without discussing them and attempting to find solutions. I just don’t think every one of my personal stories needs to be shared with a wide audience. The power imbalance in heteronormative sexual relations is a problem, so let’s talk about it. Female pleasure should be the norm, not the exception. No woman should ever have to fake an orgasm. No man should take a paint-by-numbers approach to sex and disregard his partner’s individual quirks and preferences. What works for one woman won’t necessarily work for another and that reality should be respected. We’re individuals—human beings, not objects—and we shouldn’t ever “perform” to satisfy someone’s ego. As far as I’m concerned, this is a human rights issue. Almost every adult has sexual history, even if they’re not currently sexually active. Sex is a natural occurrence and literally the reason we are alive. Since we’re all participating in one way or another, we should all be having a good time.
MM: When did you decide to turn this story into an experimental film and how did you find the perfectly synchronized images that went alongside it?
CSS: I wanted to preserve the original text of the main story in the book, Naomi & The Reckoning (Finishing Line Press, 2020), and make the film an essay film of sorts. Except that this is a work of fiction, not a documentary. In my undergrad days, I spent a lot of time studying European cinema, especially French cinema so someone like Agnès Varda or Jean-Luc Godard is always going to subconsciously influence my work. It’s inevitable. There’s a lot more overlap between film and literature in the European tradition than we see in American cinema. I’m of the mind that words and images can go together quite well (as much as I also like some very minimalist films with little to no narration or dialogue). There are only two images in the entire film that I created entirely by myself. One is a photo collage of two bridal gowns in a shop window with the reflection of trees on the glass. The other is a black-and-white collage of magnolia trees and Richmond, Virginia’s skyline. Everything else is found footage or photography. I have professional experience as a photo editor and curator for journalistic and commercial clients, so I’m smarter than your Average Bear when it comes to sourcing images. I manipulated these “found objects” by changing colors, focal points, scale, grain, and more. Then I edited them together to create something new. This project reminded me of just how much I love editing. Editors really are one of the authors of a film, along with the writer and the director.
MM: How did you know that actress Donna Morales was the ideal person to audio-narrate this story?
CSS: Donna brings a lot of empathy, as well as experience as a wife, mother, and teacher that all lent itself perfectly to this project. She discusses all this and more on my podcast Badass Lady-Folk. You can listen to her episode here: https://rss.com/podcasts/badassladyfolk/151729/
MM: Donna, what did you think when you first read “Naomi and the Reckoning”?
Donna Morales (DM): When I first read “Naomi and the Reckoning” I thought: Wow how amazing that we can, as women in this generation, deal with subject matter that was once considered taboo, especially regarding sex and sexuality. The author, Christine Quail Bell- Stoddard, painted the images in words rather than pictures and gave me the honor of narrating those very carefully chosen descriptives and while narrating I paid very close attention to the intention of each word/phrase as not to distort or make light of the subject matter at hand.
MM: And, Donna, since you read this story with so much passion, how did you so effectively encompass the fictional Naomi? On the heels of that, what was your favorite thing about working on this project?
DM: The passion in which I effectively encompassed the “Essence” if you will, of Naomi, was something I had felt deep within myself. Naomi was relatable. She was a young woman crying out for what HER NEEDS were, not the needs of her family, friends, or her new husband. She did not want to be complacent from the start because that is what was “expected.” I married young at age 21. I had my first baby at 22 and was scared to death. Had I been more assertive and had better self-esteem at that young age, I think my future would have turned out a lot different than it did. I was proud of Naomi and I wanted her empowerment to shine. My favorite thing about working on this project was the fact that the author, Christine, gave me a lot of room to create during the taping and allowed me to give Naomi several nuances with regard to her personality, tone, her ebbs and flows of her inner conflicts and, how she stood up for herself to her parents, sister and husband which allowed this character to triumph and earn respect. This piece was not a “one note,” so to speak, narration.
MM: Christine, how long did it take you to complete this film?
CSS: Actually, editing the film didn’t take more than a couple of weeks, but I had been meditating on it for a while. That’s usually how I operate: creating in my head for months or even years before actually sitting down to execute the work. In 2017, I wrote the novelette Naomi & The Reckoning, a print book published by Finishing Line Press. I put the manuscript aside and then rediscovered it in 2019, when I decided to submit it to FLP. Luckily, it was the only place I submitted and my acceptance came nice and early. So not much hand wringing there! The book was released in 2020, right before we headed into quarantine for the lovely emerging pandemic. Trust me—it’s no fun promoting a book when so many people are dying. But the engine of capitalism kept chugging along, so it was something I had to do. In the fall of 2020, I recorded the narration with Donna. The plan was to use the narration for both an audiobook and a film. I released the audiobook in early 2021 through my company Quail Bell Press & Productions (www.quailbell.com). Then I spent almost the rest of the year imagining how I wanted the film to look and feel. Once I worked it out in my head, I got to editing.
MM: How do you get your films into the public spectrum?
CSS: There are so many possibilities now! I’ve screened my films in one-off events at museums, galleries, cinemas, bookstores, bars, and university settings. I’ve also had my films installed and playing on loop at galleries and art centers. My films have shown at film festivals, both in-person and virtual ones run over Zoom or other online platforms. While some of my shorter works are available for free on Vimeo, YouTube, and select other websites, my longer works (and some shorter ones) are behind paywalls. You can stream them on Vimeo on Demand, Amazon Prime, and elsewhere. My first feature film, Sirena’s Gallery, first screened at the historic Byrd Theatre, a movie palace in Richmond, Virginia, and is currently being represented by Summer Hill Entertainment. I’m excited to see where it goes next because, as we know, the future is uncertain!
MM: What have been the highlights of your career as a creator so far?
CSS: It’s tough to say because I try to view every new project as a challenge to relish. There are many highlights! So let me narrow it down to the pandemic era. This is a time when plenty of people of struggling to find positivity, myself included. But the truth is that I am grateful for a lot. Here are some highlights:
- Sirena’s Gallery, my feature film, which I shot in 2020 and finished in 2021. Sirena’s Gallery is an independent feature film about a Salvadoran-American woman’s struggle as an art gallery owner after losing her husband to suicide. For a limited time, you can watch the film on Vimeo on Demand. Sirena’s Gallery will also be streamed in a virtual screening in March (tickets here) and screened at the Stuart Cinema in Brooklyn in May, along with Naomi & The Reckoning(tickets here.)
- Virtual Caress, a suite of 13 artist videos that I made using the music of John Davis. Videos were made using remote collaboration and social distancing techniques during the 2020 COVID-19 quarantine. It’s now streaming on Vimeo on Demand.
- Heaven is a Photograph (CLASH Books, 2020) is a book of narrative poems and photographs tells the story of an art student and her journey of doubt, longing, and questioning. You can order it from CLASH Books and most other places that books are sold.
- My HeartShare murals are a collection of murals I made in homes for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities in Brooklyn, NY. I started the 17-part series in 2020 and finished in 2021 while serving as the artist-in-residence at the non-profit organization. You can view samples here and contact me for commissions here.
- “Cyber Cinderella” (October 2021) and “Forget Fairytales” (January 2022) are two comedy plays that I’ve written and directed at the Broadway Comedy Club in Manhattan. Tickets for “Forget Fairytales” are available through Eventbrite. My next play at the Broadway Comedy Club will be “Hashtag Mountain Girl” in April (tickets here.)
- “Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares” is a full-length play that I wrote and will be directing at the Gene Frankel Theatre in Manhattan in June 2022. This play is about Maya, a young Salvadoran-American, navigating trauma and family mythology as she comes of age in Phoenix, Arizona. Find out more about the project here.
MM: What other projects are coming up for you in the future and is there anything else that you would like to discuss?
CSS: At risk of sounding scattered, I will focus on just one project here (the truth is that I always have several in the works, just in various stages). I’ll use Her Garden, which you, Ms. Meehan, wrote the narration for, as the sample project. Her Garden is my new edit and directorial take on Tim Ashworth’s The Garden. Tim is a Richmond-based filmmaker who I worked with during college. I was one of the stars in the film, which is basically an experimental retelling of Alice in Wonderland.
Acting in that film is one of the first things I did as a VCU student, even though it wasn’t a student project. Tim was 20 years my senior and a “townie.” We met on Craigslist and collaborated for more than a year. After Tim finished the film, he didn’t really do anything with it. It was a huge disappointment to me and a life lesson I’m glad I learned early on in my career: Often, you must make your own opportunities. Some artists, no matter their age or stage in their career, refuse to acknowledge that. I’ve reflected a lot on that experience in the decade since it happened and came to the conclusion that I could reclaim some of the power I had lost in the making of the film. I asked you, Meagan, to write a voice-over script that I could record and put over the film, which has no narration or dialogue. It’s a totally different story that you dreamt up and I love that for it. Right now, I’m working on nailing my performance and doing some light editing of the original visuals. I hope to have the project done in early 2022 so I can begin finding, er, making opportunities for it!
DM: This current year 2022, has begun to shape up nicely with regard to film projects I have coming down the pike, I am currently slated to film two short films, a feature, continue my recurring role on the new episodic “Lark and Spur” for Amazon Prime as well as get some theater work on the books as well. I am very proud to partner with Christine Stoddard and Quail Bell Productions and look forward to the film version of “Naomi and the Reckoning,” now on Vimeo, becoming a wonderful success. My other collaborations with Quail Bell Productions have included “Cyber Cinderella,” Nessie” and “Sirena’s Gallery.” “Sirena’s Gallery” and “Naomi and the Reckoning” will have a private screening this May 14, 2022, in Brooklyn, at the Stuart Cinema & Cafe. Tickets are on sale on Eventbrite. Quail Bell Press and Productions will have more details if necessary.