[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance ’07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
“How She Move” is indie film’s answer to Hollywood’s tried-and-true dance film. Ian Iqbal Rashid‘s Sundance World Dramatic Competition entry follows Raya, a teenager who takes a chance by enrolling in a step dancing competition to raise money for school. “How She Move” is driven with assured performances from mostly non-trained actors and set in a bleak Toronto winter, adding grit and style to a unique coming-of-age story. His previous feature “Touch of Pink” received two Directors Guild of Canada noms in 2005.
Please introduce yourself…
I was born in Tanzania, East Africa. My family left to seek asylum first in the UK (where we were rejected) and then later in Canada, where we settled and I grew up. Ironically, I now live in London. And the themes that run through much of my work are concerned with the effects of migration on immigrant families.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I had a relatively successful career as a poet: 3 volumes published which won a clutch of awards and literary prizes. I supported myself by doing lots of freelance work, mostly administrative, for small publicly funded arts organizations in London – which as you can imagine, did not add up to a very lucrative career. My boyfriend, fearing he’d be supporting me for the rest of my life, saw an ad in the paper in which the BBC was offering an internship for wannabe TV writers. I balked. He sent in a short story of mine without telling me. I got an interview, one of the four places on the gig, eventually an agent and consequently a successful career as a tv writer. But I found I was frustrated by the way that directors were interpreting my writing. A few years ago, I made a couple of short films for UK television (“Surviving Sabu” and “Stag“) which were well received. Around the same time, a script (which I had initially developed on that early BBC workshop) had finally reached maturity. As it was very autobiographical and because of the success of my shorts, I was offered a chance to direct. That film was called “Touch of Pink” and it was launched at Sundance in 2004, and bought for international distribution by Sony Picture Classics.
How did you learn about filmmaking?
I have no film school qualifications. In fact, I have no academic qualifications of any kind. I’ve always learned on the job. Filmmaking is no exception.
Please talk about your film…
“How She Move” is the story of Raya, a black teenage girl whose aspirational Jamaican immigrant parents have skimped and saved to send to private school. But the costs of finding and burying her sister, who dies of a drug overdose, means Raya has to leave private school and go instead to a tough inner city neighborhood public school. Soon she rediscovers the world of competitive step dancing, which she uses to earn funds to try send herself back to private school and the road to success and achievement for which her parents have worked so hard. But through stepping she comes to reclaim her neighborhood and community, and decides she’ll achieve her dreams on her own terms and from her own turf.
The film comes about through writer Annmarie Morais‘ passionate interest in step dancing. She initially developed the script with production company, Sienna Films (who produced “Touch of Pink”). Sienna eventually brought the project to me. I worked with Annmarie on the last few drafts and the project went into production in late winter 2006.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
The greatest challenge for this film was finding a way to satisfyingly shoot the dance with the time and budget constraint we had – 14 dance numbers (not to mention a complex story) all shot in the span of 25 days. I decided to embrace the economy in which we were operating and shoot on super 16, to go mostly hand-held and to invest as much prep time as possible in rehearsal with the actors (many of whom were completely inexperienced and who would only have one or two takes while in production – both for dance and acting).
One of my main influences were the dance films I grew up with in the ’70s and ’80s: “Fame,” “Flashdance,” and in particular, “Saturday Night Fever.” The thrilling dance which seems choreographed by the aspirational yearnings of the young central characters of those films were a particular inspiration.
How did the casting for the film come together?
The cast are peopled by dancers who are acting for the first time and actors who are dancing (and many of them acting!) for the first time. We auditioned hundreds of hopefuls in both the U.S. and Canada before unearthing the brilliant, intense Rutina Wesley who plays our lead Raya. Rutina is the daughter of a Las Vegas showgirl and a musician father, she’s trained through scholarships at Julliard and RADA and is an enormous talent. Our male lead is also an unknown. Dwain Murphy initially auditioned for one of the smallest roles. He was so good. He has an extraordinary warmth and naturalness. I kept bringing him back for bigger and bigger parts, and eventually the lead.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the movie?
25 days shoot. 14 dance numbers. The figures just don’t crunch. But somehow we got there…
What do you hope to get out of the festival?
I would love the film to find distribution at Sundance. I hope it finds distributors who don’t just see this as a niche, black film but have the imagination to offer it to the widest possible audience, both in terms of race and age. I’d like to think the film has that kind of broad appeal.
For me personally, I’d like “How She Move” to demonstrate that I can do a broad range of work – not just autobiographical gay Muslim rom-coms like “Touch of Pink.”
Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance?
I had just finished the film and returned to London from Toronto when I heard. I was thrilled! Sundance is exactly the opportunity that this little film needs to find its way in the world.
What are some of your favorite films, and why?
I love the films of Preston Sturges – how he managed to mix social issues and politics with wildly risque screwball comedy. At his best, I think Almodovar does something similar. I so admire the range and variety (and sustained excellence) of Ang Lee‘s career. And I also admire John Sayles, for his unwillingness to compromise, to always work on his own terms.
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