Alexandra Shiva’s (Stagedoor, Bombay Eunuch) latest documentary How To Dance In Ohio takes us inside the world of teenagers with autism. In a beautiful coming of age documentary, Shiva follows three teenagers with autism as they prepare for their formal Spring Dance. With over 200 hours of footage, I talked to Shiva about the challenges of narrowing that down, and the personal experience that inspired her to make How to Dance In Ohio.
AwardsDaily TV: Congratulations on the wonderful documentary, How to Dance In Ohio! It is so inspiring to watch.
Alexandra Shiva: Thank you so much. It was even more inspiring to make.
AD: What I want to know is how did the idea actually come about for it?
AS: Well, my husband and I have a very close friend who have a daughter who is on the spectrum. She’s turning 18 next week and I’ve watched her grow up and she’s more affected and doesn’t speak, but I had a lot of questions about what happens and what coming of age look like for her. Is she going to have friends and what is she going to and what happens and are her parents always going to have to take care of her? A lot of the conversations with her parents were just very fraught with those types of questions. I remember one time her mom said to me, “Do you have to be able to say ‘I love you’ to be a person? What makes you a person?” That was really the beginning and why I was so interested in the subject. I sat and I was trying to figure out how to tell the story in a way that would be relatable. I met a woman who brought me to Columbus and we met Dr. Amigo and he was talking about how he was bringing all his clients there and he was going to spend three months in group therapy preparing them for the prom and I could not think of a more relatable way to tell the story because we all know what it’s like to not know what to say and be afraid and feel insecure and to have something be new. To have these subjects be having in a more heightened way, hopefully allows the viewer into their lives.
AD: What was the biggest challenge in putting the documentary together and making it?
AS: I think the biggest challenge was, more than anything else, trying to make sure that we had the experience of being with them and being there in a way that never let a viewer feel like they were looking at them. I would say the greatest challenges were in the editing because I wanted to structure it so you as a viewer feel connected and they still have agency and the laughs that happen are still generated by them not about them. All of those kinds of things and that was a big dance. It was a really big process of fine tuning how you bring someone in, but not make someone seem like so other that you can’t relate to them anymore. I think that’s a danger often with people who have situations that you can’t necessarily relate to.
AD: That was the thing. Even the first time I watched it, it was like you’ve done such a great job on this because you’re actually laughing with them and not at them. How did you even get them to open up? That must have been hard to get that from them, or was it easy?
AS: I would say that it was by far the most collaborative film I’ve ever worked on because of what they’re struggling with, there had to be a lot of prep. They had to know what we were doing, why we were doing it, if we were going to be in their group therapy session, if there were group therapy sessions about us before we ever got there. When we arrived, there was this town hall meeting where all the parents, guardians, and clients came and asked whatever questions they wanted to ask. They didn’t even ask them directly, they wrote them on note cards and then Dr. Amigo would read them off so it was sort of anonymous. The whole first week we were there, we sat in a room and the four or five clients and I would come in and I would tell them what I did and my camerawoman would show them the camera and explain what she did and where she was going to be in the room. My point is, there was a lot of prep to make them feel as comfortable as possible and the rule was that they could always ask to turn the camera off if they were uncomfortable. They felt like they had that agency and within, I would say, two weeks, most of the clients really didn’t even register us. They did, but they didn’t. I think we were just another person in the room. They didn’t look at the camera like, “oh, a hundred thousand or a million or two million people are going to be looking at me.” They didn’t process it that way so that was interesting, but I also think that the parents and the individuals on the spectrum were really moved to be able to speak about their experience. They wanted to be seen and heard and the idea that we were interested in not only hearing it, but showing other people what it was like to be them was a big force. It propelled their comfort. There was one person who was not comfortable and it was a very interesting experience with her. Marideth did not want to be on camera. Her parents wanted her to and thought that she’d be great and it would be great for her to tell her story and she’s obviously so compelling. The way that she made it work for her was before we would do an interview with her, there was a 45 minute coffee where she got ask me anything and everything. It was like, “where have you been and what language did they speak and tell me about this and do you know that bulldogs have to have C-sections.” Anything she wanted to talk about and then she’d say, “Now I’m fine and now its okay and I can do an interview. We did that for each interview. As we went home to her house, she asked her mother to have us send a list of where we were going to be in her house at every minute. It was like from two to 2:15, we walk in then 2:15-2:30 we’ll put our stuff down then 2:30 to 2:45 we mic you. That was what she needed and that was what worked.
AD: How did you even decide that you were going to narrow in on the three girls, Marideth, Jessica, and Caroline, as the subjects?
AS: We came home with much more footage, we had like 250 hours of footage, and it was a lot and the narrowing down process was not easy. We did have boys that we had focused on and they’re in the getting ready and those moments where people tell you themselves what their difficulties are and what their interests are. I think that the idea really early on in the edit room that prom has this feeling like it’s about the girls and the boys are supporting players. There haven’t been any documentaries about girls on the spectrum. It is five boys to one girl affected by autism so there’s sort of a double invisibility. There was something about Marideth, Caroline, and Jessica and they stood out in a way that it felt like you could really tell this story and bring someone into this experience through different various stages of coming of age. Actually, the person who really inspired the movie is a girl so that didn’t hurt in how that focus happened. The sister of the girl who inspired it saw the movie and then said to her mom, “what’s the name of the girl who reminds me of Lucy?” and it was Marideth who reminded her of her sister. I think there was something about that.
AD: How hard or easy was it for you to actually get the whole documentary off the ground, from having the idea to financing it to getting it made?
AS: It was a long road [laughs]. I actually developed a short first in where I was filming in New York and it didn’t feel right. It felt too much like it was a survey movie where the main character had autism, instead of the main subject being the people that you’re focusing on and not the issue. That was almost four years ago that I started that and then three years ago was when the dance happened. So, three and a half years ago was when I first went to Columbus and then getting investors and doing all that was quite a process. The edit was a year. Documentaries take time and I knew when I started this one that I felt like if it took ten years, it would be okay because I was so invested in what I was doing and, for me, that really has to be the case because it might take that long. Sometimes it’s easier and sometimes it’s harder, but ultimately, it’s not like a twenty day shoot and then you just get it out there the next year. For me, it had to be something that I felt really passionately about and could maintain my interest for years to come.
AD: What was it like seeing How to Dance In Ohio for the first time? What was it like for the girls when they saw it?
AS: Well, we premiered at Sundance and the deal that we had always made with everyone was that they were going to be the first people to see it; we were never going to show it in public before they saw it. We got into Sundance and then about three weeks before Sundance, I went to Columbus and showed everyone the movie and it was an amazing experience. The movie is based on them, but you’re never sure if someone is going to get literal and say, “That didn’t happen like that.” But, everyone got the essence of what it was and they told me that they felt seen and heard and that was the ultimate goal. It was one of the most important pieces because if that wasn’t there then what have I done? It was thrilling. The other thing that was amazing was that they laughed throughout. We had these little focus screenings for editors and people to give notes and all those places that we had known there was laughter, they were laughing. They were laughing at themselves and their friends and calling out. One thing that was amazing was that there was this guy who didn’t want to be in the movie and in the dance, he was very prominent because he’s very tall, he’s just this blurred head walking around. I was always worried that he would say he wasn’t blurred enough and that he could still tell it was him, but he came up to me at the end of a screening and he said, “you know the places where I’m blurred? Can you undo it because I want to be a part of this?” It was amazing. I still had time to do that because we were finishing the exhibition copy so I had a day or so to pull off his mask. It was just thrilling to hear that.
AD: How rewarding that must be.
AS: It was amazing. They were so courageous and so without any expectations. I don’t know about you, but if someone came to me and said, “I think I’d like to spend three months filming you and then you’re going to have no control over where it goes,” takes a lot of courage to do that. I felt so relieved that it matched up with what their hopes were.
AD: Do you still keep in touch with all the girls?
AS: Oh, absolutely I do! I was just texting with Caroline’s mom last week. The film is on HBOGo and HBONow, but it also has an educational distributor so there are festivals that it goes to. Sometimes I can’t go, but now they go! There was one in Menlo Park and I emailed a bunch of the subjects and said that they want to fly someone there and asked who wants to go. Caroline and her mom and Dr. Amigo went and represented the film! It was so awesome. And, its such a self-esteem boost for her. Her mom was saying that she felt so good about being able to be up there and talk. I keep in touch with all of them. Marideth and I are Facebook friends [laughs] so that’s how we keep in touch, but they’re incredible and doing really well.
AD: What do you want, as a filmmaker, for people to take away from watching the documentary?
AS: To me, there shouldn’t ever be a limit based on what people are capable of. It’s measured and not always going to be qualitative and exact. What I’m capable of is not what someone else is. The idea that these people are capable of far more than sometimes people allow. We’re not all that different, I think that was a big part of the theme. They may be having some of these feelings or respond to things differently, but we all have had that. Hopefully, the next time you see someone acting in a way that’s strange, I would hope that whatever you would take away from it is, “oh that person is just a little different than I am.” Some insight and relating is the goal. I feel like if you can relate, it’s easier to connect. Sometimes you have to really, really show that we can all relate. And for people to love them because I love them. That was all a part of my goal.
AD: What are you working on now?
AS: I have two projects that I’m working on. One’s in pre-production, but I’m not quite ready to talk about it. I can’t talk about it yet because it’s all coming together. I am definitely working on two different projects and I’m very excited. I still feel very connected to this movie and I’m still helping it grow every day. I feel connected to what its doing and who’s liking it on Facebook and who wants to show it in what library and what school and all that stuff.
AD: Are doing any other festivals next?
AS: Thank you. I’m never sure where it is. Kino Lorber is our educational distributor so sometimes I’ll just see it pop up. It was just in Menlo Park and it was in Boston and I feel like its somewhere, I just don’t know where [laughs]. It did all the festivals already so now it’s at schools. To me, that’s really important because the responses from high school kids are more intense than anyone else. I would love for it to be shown in every high school.
How to Dance in Ohio is now showing on HBO. For More Information visit http://www.howtodanceinohio.com/