Marilyn Agrelo's 'Mad Hot Ballroom'
When I was asked to write this issue’s “Playback,” the part of the e-mail that intrigued me most was coming up with my “desert island doc.” I discussed this around my office, asking our group what films they would bring to a desert island, and the fascinating result was that there were some incredible films listed--films that rightfully deserved to be in the pantheon of documentaries, or any films for that matter. But as soon as someone suggested a film, they would usually follow it by saying that, as great as it was, they probably wouldn’t want to see it again. And in a way, this view reflects many of the documentaries shown at festivals and in theaters--unquestionably superb films, but so dark that one viewing is plenty. Don’t get me wrong: I’m very much drawn to dark films, and have made a number of them myself, but if I were going to go to a desert island with a single film, I’d want one that’s moving and emotional, and that celebrates what’s wonderful about life. A film I love that fits all this is Mad Hot Ballroom (Amy Sewell, prod./wtr.).
Centered around a ballroom dancing competition for fifth grade dance teams in New York City elementary schools, the film has the crucial elements that any great film should have. There’s drama: Right from the start, the audience is aware of a coming competition, and the dramatic questions raised are: Who wins? Who loses? What happens on the road to get there? There are compelling, three-dimensional characters--children and their teachers, from extremely varied New York City neighborhoods--whom you truly care about. The film takes you places that you haven’t been before; you can walk past New York City elementary schools thousands of times, as I have, and they’re still new worlds to explore, with their troubles, successes and joys. There is deeply felt emotion in the film; the children and their teachers are so dedicated, warm and engaging that you can’t help but be pulled into their lives. You feel their sorrows, and celebrate their triumphs.
And Mad Hot Ballroom is about something meaningful. At first blush, the documentary seems just to be about a dance competition, but it’s also very much about class, poverty and growing up in an immigrant community. And it’s a film that celebrates the commitment of public school teachers--how they mentor, inspire and love the children--and the profound influence they have on their lives. And crucially, it’s an insightful and frequently poignant look at 10- and 11-year-olds on the cusp of adulthood--the challenges they daily face, their fears, hopes and dreams. In addition to all these facets of the film is the grace and artistry of the filmmaking. Beautifully directed and shot, energetically edited, and with a fantastic score, Mad Hot Ballroom tells the story in a way that is always compelling and dramatic.
But there is something more ineffable: the magic that comes when all of these elements are masterfully woven together. Mad Hot Ballroom is emotional, powerful and heartfelt--a film to see…and then see again.
Bill Guttentag’s most recent film, Nanking, premiered at Sundance and was released this winter by THINKFilm.