Shadow Spirit in focus : Film Director, Paola Morabito
Through a series of written responses, Shadow Spirit collaborators take us behind the exhibition's deep immersion, into the ideas and work that went into the work.
Mok Mok Murrup Yakuwa is a mesmerising film installation by artist Paola Balla that tells the Wemba Wemba story of Mok Mok—a devil woman and sovereign goddess who appears and dissapears, spectre-like on country. Paola Balla enlisted her cousin, the film director Paola Morabito, to help her realise the vision. In this short essay the director shares the story behind the collaboration and the visual language of the film.
I was honoured when my cousin (on our father’s Italian side), the artist Paola Balla, a Wemba Wemba/Gunditjmara woman, invited me to collaborate on reimagining the story of Mok Mok, a matriarchal ancestral figure revered by many Indigenous clans. This collaboration was in response to curator Kimberley Moulton's vision for a group show, which emphasised that First Peoples in Australia hold stories of spirits and other worldly beings that heed both warning and protection.
Paola shared her visionary dreams for her artwork titled Mok Mok Murrup Yakuwa. The film component would be integrated into her installation, featuring her renowned stretched bush-dyed silk organza. The film would be housed within a tent-like structure, creating a captivating experience of peering out into the unknown, in the dark, to reveal Mok Mok and her power. It was a rare opportunity to materialise a striking female character like her on screen.
During our conversations, Paola had an amazing idea to cast her mother, Aunty Margie, in the role of Mok Mok. Aunty Margie, elegantly shameless and a born troublemaker, was the perfect fit. We went on a journey to hear Aunty Margie and Aunty Donna Mitchell's take on Mok Mok and her story. These conversations formed the foundation for building the visual language of the film. Mok Mok would be portrayed as a sovereign entity in nature, transcending time and space, within a spiritual realm shot on country. She would serve as a guardian presence, highlighting the violence of patriarchy and colonisation.
As a filmmaker, I have a deep interest in the supernatural genre, particularly with powerful female character like this. Mok Mok embodying justice, lurking in nature, and appearing and disappearing over the river.
Working with our cinematographer, we visually built Mok Mok's character through camera movements, tracking shots, and the interplay of light and dark, with the river alive as she danced in the night sky, beckoning. We incorporated colours to symbolise Paola’s important themes of Life, Death, and the Dreaming, choosing blue, gold, and red as representations. To depict Mok Mok's eyes as red, we found a more economical and interesting way to translate that onto the screen.
Crafting the film with our editor, we explored ways to visually portray the non-linear nature of Aboriginal stories, where the past, present, and future coexist. This realisation was liberating and helped us bring Paola's vision to life. The sound design involved over one hundred and twenty layers and fragments of sound and music. We utilised the sound of the "Waa" Crow to represent Mok Mok's voice and her spiritual shifts throughout the story.
On set, one of the most enjoyable moments was recreating a childhood memory shared by Aunty Margie and Paola. It involved Grandma Rosie painting her arms black with boot polish and scaring the kids by putting her arms through the window at night. This scene, as startling as it was on screen, brought us joy and excitement, reminiscent of us as little cousins, as we held hands in awe of Auntie Margie's beautifully terrifying natural claws coming through the cottage window.
Paola's confidence in me as a filmmaker and mine in hers as an artist is rooted in our shared family history of trust and love. The process of making the film and the final product serve as a testament to our solid foundation. We look forward to future collaborations with Mok Mok, where the two Paola’s come together in spirit and confidence, and continue to inspire each other.
Visit the Shadow Spirit stories page for more deep dives on how the exhibition came to be.