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Director Catherine Gund on Capturing Motion in ‘Born to Fly’

Director Catherine Gund on Capturing Motion in 'Born to Fly'

The film, which had its world premiere earlier this year at SXSW before going on to Full Frame and Sheffield Doc/Fest, blends archival footage with interviews and performance. Unlike a conventional artist documentary, “Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity” delves not only into its primary subject’s life, but also taps into larger themes about art, individuality and even physical suffering.

Through interviews with Streb and her dancers, it becomes increasingly clear they are all driven by various life experiences to push themselves to their physical limits — and even risk their own safety — for the thrill and release they get through performing extreme acts of movement. By the end of the film, it’s clear why Streb is known not just as a choreographer, but also as an “extreme action architect.”

The film spans Streb’s childhood, her early days in Haight Ashbury in the early ’70s, her involvement in the artist scene in SoHo of the ’80s until today when she runs a successful dance company, The STREB Extreme Action company (perhaps best known outside the dance world for its daring choreography at the London Olympics).

READ MORE: Michael Moore’s 13 Rules for Making Documentary Films

Emmy-nominated producer, director, writer and organizer Catherine Gund met Streb 30 years ago as a college student (where Streb was a visiting artist) and decided it was time to capture Streb’s life and work on film.

For her part, Streb told Indiewire she had absolutely no hesitations about being the subject of a documentary and giving Gund total creative freedom. “I put this story entirely in Catherine’s hands!!” Streb wrote in an e-mail.

Indiewire recently interviewed Gund about the film, which is now screening at Film Forum in New York.

How did you get involved with this project?

At one of [Elizabeth’s] galas, where she honors action mavericks, she asked me to “drop the bowling ball.” I climbed 35 feet up a truss carrying a bowling ball and sat on a beam not more than eight or 10 inches across. I looked down to her emcee Zaire Baptiste whose feet were planted, his hands in front of his chest. He was prepared to catch. Just then, bowling balls on either side of me were released and gaining speed, hurtling towards cement blocks stationed beneath them, and finally eviscerating their target. Then Zaire clapped for me to let my ball go. I dropped it.

My sense of time changed for the few seconds while it hung in the air. I didn’t breathe. Then I saw Zaire make the catch, an emblematic move, so simple, common and yet it was so hard to isolate or parse the dimensionality of it all. Immediately after that, I dared Elizabeth — and challenged myself — to see if we could make a movie that got viewers to feel the things I had felt: fear, trust, disbelief, vulnerability, exhilaration, magic.

Where did the funding for the film come from? 

My production company Aubin Pictures is a nonprofit institution so our funding comes from a fusion of private and government grants, individuals, a few corporations and pre-licensing. I was encouraged by the foundation support we received from the arts community despite the fact that film and “art” don’t usually overlap.

Something amazing happened where Elizabeth’s and my artistic media became neither film nor performance, neither documentary nor dance, but some kind of gritty newness. We garnered support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as well as from the Warhol Foundation, and I am deeply grateful to both of those institutions for seeing the potential in this film to raise broad questions about the necessity of art in practice and the role of film in the art world.

How closely did you work with Elizabeth (if at all) on the structure of the film? Did you give her any artistic control over it?

The coolest part was that we met regularly for breakfast during the making of the film and just talked (usually for three or four hours). After months of this, I suggested we film one of our meetings, but it didn’t translate into film the way seeing her work does, or spending time with her as she goes about her day or capturing her dancers reflecting on their own motivations. So we went back to our jubilant get-togethers, with no cameras rolling.

That’s how we worked stuff out, how I learned, how I listened. She did not have any artistic control over the film because I didn’t want to make an advertisement for her company. I wanted to tell a story about her, a story of intense encounter with life in which limitations of age, injury, gender and otherwise, make their way through us and we go for it or we don’t. She always does. She went for this film and our demonstration of trust is the result. I’m honored and grateful to her for letting me have a go at it.

Was it challenging to film Elizabeth’s work and do it justice visually?

I had mind-blowing, cinematic visuals to work with, but that was also my greatest challenge because I knew I couldn’t improve upon being in the presence of the sweaty, loud, terrifying, sublime live action. There’s nothing like being there. So I tried to do something different, a different kind of movie, a different kind of performance. Essentially changing the pieces as we went along capturing the work on film. I didn’t want to “document” or try to make the work look like it does live. A film like that would be boring and/or impossible. So for me it was more about taking what I feel and what I’m learning when I witness these pieces and recreating that feeling through layering of meaning and emotion on film.

We had 300 hours of archival footage that Elizabeth had amassed over 30 years and more than 10 photographers contributed their own art and understanding to the mix. We wanted to be very close and curious as any potential viewer, seeing through the eyes of artists, wearing our attentiveness on our sleeves.

READ MORE: Watch the Trailer for “Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity”

Have you been surprised by the response to the film?

I always felt that athletes, especially dancers, would respond positively, would be moved, would see themselves on the screen, would feel the pain in their own bones. But I’ve been blown away by the scope of hungry people who can identify with the tactile dimensions of our lives, who leave the room wanting to climb a mountain, change jobs, make a date with someone they think might say yes, or as one woman said, “finally take that hot yoga class I’ve been wanting to try.” Or, “This movie opened up a part of my brain I’ve never used before.”

It’s thrilling to hear about people taking on tricky changes, to see them let this work reach their deepest core and push them a little further. The magic of art injects you with a fierce focus, makes you remember that you make your own decisions. So fly! Many people tell me that they’ve always wanted to fly. Who knew that was such a common motivator, such a natural response to going through our sometimes ugly, often extraordinarily beautiful earthbound motions? I guess breaking people of worn-out habits was a goal of mine and it seems to be going well. 

“Born to Fly” is screening at Film Forum in New York and will be screening at select theaters around the country. Find out more about the film here.

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