Monday, October 26, 2009

Teen Competitions

First, a confession. I'm one of the people wearing rabbit ears in this picture taken Sunday night at the Roxie just before the world premiere of Amy Do's documentary, Rabbit Fever: A Hare-Raising Story.

Like many documentaries (and mockumentaries) about national competitions, Rabbit Fever follows a select group of contestants as they work their way through regional competitions and prepare for the big moment. Few, however, have quite as many contestants to deal with as Rabbit Fever. As its director (who raised rabbits during her childhood) explains:
“When I made my first visit to the 2003 National Convention in Wichita, Kansas, I was blown away by the size of the event. Can you imagine 20,000 rabbits in one showroom? After the initial shock, I started talking to the people there. I admired how much passion and drive they had, especially for a hobby that not a lot of outsiders would understand. What interested me the most was the teenage members.
Most kids their age would probably be hanging out at the mall, watching movies, or playing video games, but instead, these teens were using their free time to study rabbits! What was behind all of this hard work? That’s where I finally found my story: How, who, and what was this title of National Rabbit King and Queen that these kids were striving for so diligently?
Various breeds of competing rabbits
Although the intense competition drives the film forward to its climax, the heart of Rabbit Fever lies within the passion, charm, and sometimes quirkiness of its subjects. You can replace the teens’ love of rabbits with any other hobby or sport, and empathize with their motivation and goals. It’s just another vehicle that young adults use to challenge and express themselves, making Rabbit Fever not only a film about rabbits, but also a very unique coming-of-age story.”
Whereas contest films like Word Wars -- Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit, Best In Show, or Spellbound are usually driven by compelling personalities, Rabbit Fever faces four very peculiar challenges:
  • The numbers don't lie: Although teenagers are competing for the royalty titles, they are easily outnumbered by the population of adult rabbit breeders attending the convention. With an average gestation period of 32 days, it doesn't take long to produce more rabbits for upcoming competitions. With 20,000 rabbits entered in each year's competition, the sheer number of participants stifles the kind of drama inherent in horse and dog shows.
  • Breeding versus bravado: The human participants in Rabbit Fever lack the egomania and eccentricities displayed in films like Pop Star On Ice or Wiener Takes All: A Dogumentary. The "royalty contestants" are essentially good kids without much conflict in their lives who have encountered few, if any, financial challenges to attaining their goals.
  • Lack of a big payoff: Although sponsored by the American Rabbit Breeders Association, there is no big financial prize or major trophy to be won. Rabbit breeders enter these competitions largely for their own satisfaction and to share their love of rabbits with other breeders. The awards dinner for royalty contestants is a fairly mild-mannered affair.
  • Cinematic schizophrenia: Because the annual event has, in effect, been split between the contest for "best in show" and who gets to be National Rabbit King or Rabbit Queen, the director has had to juggle two distinct paths to success: one for the animals and one for the humans.
That's not to suggest that Rabbit Fever isn't a well-made documentary. Amy Do spent a huge amount of time and effort photographing rabbits, following the teenagers at competitions, and her film is extremely well put together.

Amy Do filming rabbits

Where the film really does shine is in its delightful animation sequences by Jonathan Ng. While these serve to reinforce the image of rabbits as adorably funny little creatures that have been anthropomorphized as a result of their cuteness, Ng's hilarious artwork only constitutes about 7% of the film's running time. Considering that Amy Do shot more than 150 hours of footage for her documentary, the instant and strong appeal of the animated sequences compared to the rather routine footage of teenagers, rabbits, and talking heads, creates a strange artistic imbalance to an otherwise enjoyable film.

* * * * * * * * * * *
By contrast, Beadie Finzi's ballet documentary, Only When I Dance, is the kind of film that has the audience on the verge of tears throughout most of its 78 minutes as it follows two poor Brazilian ballet students in their quest to escape the slums of Rio de Janiero. The film's producer, Giorgia Lo Savio, stresses that:
"Dance is such an integral part of Brazilian culture and the Brazilians are actually renowned for classical ballet. The Municipal Theatre in Rio (the equivalent of the Royal Opera, London) is huge and Brazil has produced some big international stars. Thiago Soares is currently a principal soloist at the Royal Ballet. However ballet is still seen as an exclusive art form, only accessible to the white, wealthy elite. There is a huge contrast between rich and poor. Ballet is reflective of this divide.

Initially, Irlan’s parents were concerned about his passion because classical ballet is not seen as a suitable career for a boy (especially not one from the favela). We actually had to give up on the first boy that we found because his family was very resentful and ashamed of the fact that he was doing ballet. They didn’t want any part in it. But with Irlan, we arrived at a point when his family had come to terms with it and were very supportive, which is unusual."
Irlan Santos da Silva

The two young dancers (Irlan Santos da Silva and Isabela Coracy) were discovered by former ballerina Mariza Estrella, who founded the Centro de Dança Rio in 1973 and helped to guide them toward international competitions. While Irlan's talent is obvious, the dark color of Isabela's skin and the fact that, by professional ballet standards, she needs to lose some weight, are factors working against her.

Isabela Coracy

Unlike many ballet documentaries, filming in Rio's favelas was rife with danger. As Lo Savio explains:
"In order to access the favela we had to pay a ‘contribution,’ which was going to be used for the schools. We were a conspicuous presence and, although we had permission to be there, there were certain areas where we were not allowed to film due to the ongoing drug trade. We weren’t allowed to roam freely. Every morning we would be met outside the favela by the ‘associate’ -- the man who liaised with the drug traffickers on our behalf and granted us access. He would come and pick us up in his car (or meet us with his little scooter) and we would follow him. His presence protected us by providing assurance that we had permission to be there."
"Filming in Rio was very tough," confesses Finzi, the director. "You can't just get out of the van and shoot where you want, what you want. The threat of violence, of theft, is huge. The standing joke was, whenever I asked 'Can I shoot that?' the driver would answer 'No, you'll get shot at.' The problem is that the threat is so high and so consistent that you become quite blasé. It is a real effort to remember that, as director, you are responsible for a whole crew and their safety. You are constantly torn between wanting to get a certain shot versus considering whether it is worth taking the personal risk involved in getting it. In the end, we did get through the year but not before a few hair-raising incidents in the favelas."

What sets this documentary apart from so many other ballet films is the genuine struggle of Irlan and Isabela's parents to help their children realize their dreams. The heat of the streets in Rio's Complexo do Alemão is a far cry from the calm of Lausanne, Switzerland, where Irlan's first impression of Europeans is that "Everyone is so polite!" His joy at seeing snowflakes for the first time in his life is matched by the determination visible in his classical and contemporary performances in the following two clips:

Unlike Rabbit Fever, Only When I Dance has the kind of artistic vision, dancer's discipline, compelling characters, and financial urgency that help to shape a great documentary. As director Beadie Finzi notes:
"The key to most good documentaries is capturing a moment of change or transition. This story had some fantastic ingredients: two kids on the cusp of adulthood trying to realize an impossible dream where the difference between success and failure would mean everything. But it was also a tough sell (set in Brazil, shot in Portuguese, a ballet documentary), all pretty niche. However the more I examined the story, the more the universal themes shone through -- themes of race, class, and the sheer determination and love of family -- which I knew could translate to anyone, anywhere."

At first, I was quite intimidated by the language barrier. I had never made a film entirely in a foreign language. But my co-producer, Christina Daniels, was a fantastic collaborator. She was my ears and my mouth. We worked very closely and quietly together on location. I would brief her with questions and she would relay these to the characters. Occasionally I completely misunderstood the sense of a conversation, but most of the time I could follow the debate. In a strange way it taught me to watch in a different way -- to really look at my characters and listen to their inflection. I think I also was able to maintain a little more distance (not a bad thing since I was also shooting and recording sound on location)."
Unlike Bertrand Norman's 2006 documentary, Ballerina (which concentrates on the training of prima ballerinas at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg), Beadie's film is focused squarely on two dancers from poor families who, against all odds, are reaching for the stars. You'll want to have lots of tissues on hand when you see this film.

The good news is that Irlan is now dancing with American Ballet Theatre's studio company, ABT II. In a recent interview, he stated:
"My family and I were very surprised at first that someone wanted to do a documentary about me. We really didn’t quite understand what it would involve. So, in the morning when there were cameras on me getting dressed, going to the bus stop, it was a bit of a shock. One of the favorite parts in the film for me are the scenes where I am seen working so hard on the choreography for the Nijinsky ballet. I remember how hard I worked to prepare that piece for Lausanne. When I saw my hard work captured in the film, it brought tears to my eyes. I only recently watched myself in the film, so it is all very new and strange to me. The film is a very honest representation of what I went through in the last couple of years."
Here's the trailer:


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