For documentarians, establishing a rapport with subjects can be a challenge. Director-producer Alexandra Shiva and her team on How to Dance In Ohio—a documentary that follows a group of teens and young adults on the autism spectrum as they prepare for their first formal dance—went to great lengths to make sure their subjects felt comfortable on being honest camera.
Sometimes those subjects were too honest.
During the Q&A that followed last night’s Film Independent at LACMA screening of the film, Shiva told how one young woman, 16-year-old Marideth Bridges, often took quite a while to warm up to the camera before an interview.
“It was always a 45-minute coffee and a barrage of questions—‘Tell me about Alaska, tell me about India, tell me about Thailand,’” said Shiva, quoting Bridges. “And then my favorite was when she looked at me and said, ‘Do jowls run in your family?’”
“I was like, ‘I didn’t think so, but now I’m concerned,’” said Shiva, laughing and touching her cheeks as she remembered the encounter. “The honesty was refreshing and sometimes intense.” But the director said that for the most part, it wasn’t a challenge to get her subjects to open up.
“The presence of the camera doesn’t add another layer in the same way that it does for someone who’s more self-aware, more self-reflective,” Shiva said.
“It never escalated to performance for them,” added producer Bari Pearlman, who was also on hand for the event. “That’s one thing that very often a documentary filmmaker has to overcome.”
“They really wanted to be seen and they wanted to be heard and I think the idea that their experience was being validated was really important,” said Shiva. “They wanted to share that with the world.”
The idea of telling a coming-of-age story about autistic youth came to Shiva over time as she watched her friend’s daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, grow up. “I was curious and concerned about what it will look like for her to come of age and I wanted to find a way to tell that story.”
Her research eventually led her to Dr. Emilio Amigo who runs Amigo Family Counseling, a center in Columbus Ohio for people living with Autism Spectrum Disorder. When Dr. Amigo told her he was putting on a formal dance for his clients, and that they were going to spend three months in group therapy preparing for it, Shiva knew that she had found her story.
But whittling down that story to a manageable number of subjects proved a challenge. How to Dance in Ohio focuses on three young women, Jessica Sullivan (22), Caroline McKenzie (19) and Bridges as they prepare for the dance, but Shiva said choosing them over others wasn’t easy.
“There was a fantasy that we were going to get everyone in,” she said. “There were stages of participation. Some people said, ‘I’m fine [with being filmed] if it’s just in group.’ Some people said, ‘You can film me in group, but you can also film me doing an interview.’ And then some people said, ‘You can even come home with me.’ And so there was a part of us that really wanted to make sure we got everyone in. But that’s not a way to tell the story.”
Shiva said it became clear that the strongest storyline was following the three young women, but she wouldn’t give up on the rest of her subjects. “I kept trying to bring other people in and my husband [playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman] at one point said, ‘You’re going to go away from your strongest footage?’ It’s always better to be connected to the subjects and to see the story through their eyes. And this was the story.”
Shiva said the process has proved a rewarding for each of the three young women. “Over the course of this year, they’ve not only embraced the film, but it is building their self-esteem,” she said. “Caroline went to a festival and spoke on stage and Jessica has been doing interviews. They’re really into it and I don’t think we expected that. Marideth saw the movie last week and she said, ‘I’ve come so far from where I was.’”
How to Dance in Ohio premieres on Monday, October 26 at 6:00 pm PST on HBO.
Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger