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Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers #43: Alexandra Shiva’s ‘How to Dance in Ohio’ is All About Resilience

Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers #43: Alexandra Shiva's 'How to Dance in Ohio' is All About Resilience

What’s the perfect final exam for a course focusing on social skills? Well, the spring formal, of course! Alexandra Shiva’s third documentary film (and first Sundance contender) “How to Dance in Ohio” follows a group of young people on the autism spectrum as they prepare for the big day.

What’s your film about, in 140 characters or less?

In Columbus, Ohio, a group of teenagers and young adults on the autism spectrum prepare for an iconic American rite of passage — a Spring Formal. They spend 12 weeks practicing their social skills in preparation for the dance at a local nightclub, struggling to understand and accept the social rules surrounding this universally fraught experience.

Now, what’s it REALLY about?

Coming of age is complicated for everybody, whether you’re going to your first dance, or your first date, or simply trying to make a new friend. I think the film is really about our need to grow, connect and belong. The young adults in “How to Dance in Ohio” struggle deeply with the challenges around social connection. The film follows them as they persevere, and is a testament to their resilience.

Tell us briefly about yourself.

The first film I directed and produced in 2001 was “Bombay Eunuch,” which features a makeshift family of eunuchs as they struggle to survive in modern India.  “Stagedoor” (2006) follows five kids through a musical theater summer camp program in the Catskills. “How to Dance in Ohio” is my third feature documentary. In my work as a documentary filmmaker, I have explored how people relate to their community at large particularly when they find themselves more in the margins.  How do they create worlds for themselves that make more sense for them? Often these people get labeled “misfits” or “outcasts”  but I have found that the people who have the most to share about being human are the ones who are struggling the hardest.  In telling the stories of so-called outsiders, I ask audiences to consider the boundaries that place them there.     

What was the biggest challenge in completing this film?

The biggest challenge was balancing the information a viewer needs to know about autism spectrum disorders with the immersion in the daily lives of the people in the film. 

What do you want audiences at Sundance to take away from your film?

 I hope that the audiences at Sundance will fall in love with the film’s subjects, as I did. I want audiences to feel like they are with them, rather than watching them from a great distance. Although it’s often difficult to relate to experiences that are not our own, the access the subjects allowed our team hopefully allows people to connect with what they see and reflect on their own struggles. My work often seems to circle back to the notion that there are many different ways to be a person, and I hope the intimate nature of this film allows that to resonate for everyone.

Are there any films that inspired you?

“Grey Gardens,” “Streetwise, High School,” “Paris is Burning,” “Martha and Ethel,” “The Cruise,” “Southern Comfort,” “Billy The Kid,”and “Temple Grandin.”

What’s next for you?

I’m in production on a film portrait of a remarkable woman who I met during the process of making How to Dance in Ohio.

What cameras did you shoot on?

Canon C300.

Did you crowdfund?

No. We secured financing from funders with a specific interest in this subject.

Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. Click here for more profiles.

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