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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Cari Ann Shim Sham--'Sand'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 12 through September 1 in New York City and August 19 through September 8 in Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Cari Ann Shim Sham, director/executive producer of Sand.

Synopsis: A rhythmic and visual collage, Sand takes a close look at "sand dance" as it is passed down from a father to his son. Sand dance is a quickly disappearing American dance form that stems from turn-of-the-century vaudevillian and traveling shows. With only a handful of people left today still performing it, this film is a rare archive of the transference of sand dance, or "passin' the sand," from one generation to the next. Sand features emerging tap dance artist Kenji Igus and his father, Darrow.




IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Cari Ann Shim Sham: I can't really say that I "got" into doc-making. An idea came to me that quickly turned into an obsession that luckily transformed magically into a film. I didn't know the final form would be a doc when the initial "a-ha" moment of conception struck me--although now, in hindsight, I realize that a doc really was the only option for the concept.

As an artist and filmmaker I'm always interested in showing the world new things, and Sand was just that. Also, being a dancer who has a passionate love affair with tap dance, I fell hard for this film. It was more to me then just an interesting story to share. Sand is a document that serves as an archive of this rare art form from our American vaudevillian past. It shows the transferring of the dance from one generation to the next--what is referred to as "passin' the sand" from a father to a son, a passage of lineage and personal family oral history. I can't say enough about what an  authentic, rare, one-of-a-kind, gem of a film this is. It is a testimony to our country's fleeting turn-of-the-century history, as well as an homage to vaudeville and an important new piece to add to the canon of world dance and documentary cinema.


IDA: What inspired you to make Sand?

CASS: I was chair of the dance department at the Culver City [California] Academy of Visual & Performing Arts from 2001 to 2007. While I was there I started an advanced youth tap group called the Tappa Tappa Tappas. Our academy and the group drew the attention of a young man by the name of Kenji Igus. His mother sent me an e-mail at the beginning of the 2003 school year asking about the group and if her son could stop by and try out. When Kenji showed up I was surprised and delighted. He quickly fit in with the group and became a very strong contributor and central force. One day he mentioned that his dad knew the hambone and could sand-dance. I asked him to invite his father to come in to one of our rehearsals and do a workshop with the students. When I saw Darrow and Kenji together that day, dancing on our stage together, after the workshop, not talking to each other, but instead trading steps back and forth, the idea came to me in a flash. In that moment the film Sand was born. 

It took me five years from that day to make the film come to fruition. In those five years the film grew inside of me, gaining structure, insight and a deepening of purpose. As time passed I had the pleasure of seeing Kenji grow into a charming young man and a fine emerging tap dance artist. I applied for several grants and the project was shortlisted by the EMPAC Dance Movies Commission in their first granting cycle, 2007, but not funded. I had to pay from my own pocket to fund the film, with $7,000 to produce and another $12,000 to print and tour it to festivals to make it happen. But that small amount is nothing compared to the satisfaction I get from sharing Kenji and his father in this beautiful film with the world. I'm so happy to have captured this time of his life and be able to tell the story of father and son and this almost lost art form of sand dance. This project serves as an archive that highlights the finest two sand dancers I've come across in the world, bringing to light their contributions to and legacy in the history of American tap dance. As a dance scholar, I intend to collect, write about, archive and pass on information to help bring awareness to and sustain this great American form. As a filmmaker I am committed to creating compelling images that will enlighten and inspire. 

This film could not have happened without Kenji and his father, Darrow Igus, and it is my gift to them. It also could not have happened without the fabulous crew, who inspire me always and I thank from the bottom of my heart for their passion, creativity and sacrifices to make this film so beautiful: Kyle Ruddick, Ross Riege, TK Broderick, Will Pellegrini, Phil Abrams, Reyanna Vance and April Rose. 


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

CASS: When it came time to choose a camera to shoot Sand, the Canon 5dMark ii was the buzz and everyone was talking about its ability to shoot video, but no one I knew had tried. I was researching cameras and the 5d kept popping up, so we decided to test it out on Kenji. We shot the 5d next to the Panasonic HVX 200, another camera that we owned and were considering. One of my students at UCLA had a 5d, so we had him bring it in. When we got the footage side by side, there was no doubt in my mind which camera we would use to shoot the film. My DP, Ross Riege, went to work researching the camera and its sensitivity to light. Since I wanted a three-camera shoot, Ross had the challenge of matching up three cameras and lighting specifically for the 5d and its jumpy, light-sensitive image sensor. Ross also pulled in the big guns lens-wise and ordered up two long lenses--500mm, meant for high-speed sports photography--to punch in on the feet of the dancers.

At the end of our first day when we were checking footage, my producer Kyle Ruddick, Ross and I noticed that we had a two-to-three frame freeze in our footage that was occurring every 12 frames, caused by a camera hack to help control light, leaving our footage completely useless.

As the director, I made a quick and steadfast choice to not tell the rest of the crew and Kenji and his father that we had lost all but an hour of our first day of footage. We pressed on the next day, to get the film shot in only one full day. For comic relief we started referring to the camera as "the wild horse."

This small disaster helped me in the edit as I didn't have too many choices or too much footage to fall in love with. But the edit was for me the hardest part. I love to edit, but editing Sand was one of the most difficult tasks of my life. I truly cut my teeth on it, and cut some other things in the process too...I had drift issues with the sound synch, the camera ran fast, which was new for me, and it was a hell of a time converting the footage for playback in Final Cut Pro, and it took me a long time to line up, synch sound and render all three cameras before I could even get started editing. I believe I took about six months to edit the film, which is a long time for a 10-minute doc. But I needed it and the film deserved it. I really wanted the rhythms and the dance to speak louder then the words. I gave it my all--at times I was so affected by the edit I would get nauseous or dizzy. My dreams were full of rhythms and my sleep was sparse and erratic.

I wouldn't trade that time of my life for anything. It was epic and transformative; I learned so much, and every moment along the way I had a strong sense that it was more than just making a film. It was a sensation of purpose that I just can't explain with words. I couldn't really talk to anyone about it; when they asked, I would just smile. It was profound, absolutely surreal--and that, to me, is the power of art.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

CASS: My vision for the film in its infant stage was just a single image that carried with it a strong space for history and revelry, dance and a father/son relationship. I knew that I wanted Kenji and his father Darrow to tell their story, but I also wanted to show them "doin' the sand." So trying to strategize how to put the two together was a long progressive process that mostly occurred in my head. We doc filmmakers have to be so thoughtful and strategic in how we approach our subjects, in choosing the questions we pose, in positioning ourselves and our cameras into our subjects' lives in order to remain invisible and just let it be. There's a lot of letting go, and a lot of thinking that you do alone, conversations with yourself. 

It's risky. You never know what you'll get. But that for me is part of the magic in the moment.  When you turn that camera on, who really knows what might happen? It's so mysterious. I love living in that state of awareness, wonder and the unexpected surprise. So, yes, my vision grew from a seed to a seedling, a juvenile to a plant, and now we are in full bloom.  


IDA: As you've screened Sand--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

CASS: The first time I screened Sand was in Los Angeles at the James Bridges Theater at UCLA.  It was a preview of the film, for all of my friends, cast and crew. I don't remember much from that night, but there was one comment my friend Michael Sakamoto said to me that stuck. He grabbed me and he said, "Cari Ann! Sand! It took my breath away, I was literally holding my breath when I was watching it! Incredible!" 

So that's my favorite feedback moment memory. People love the film. When it screens, it really charms audiences and makes them feel something special, and they fall in love.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

CASS: My favorite doc is Manufactured Landscapes, and I also am a fan of Baraka--films that speak through imagery, and filmmakers who know how to make those images speak: those are my inspiration. One of my teachers, John Bishop, is a real inspiration. I love his docs; they really go there for me. He always says, "Just point the camera and let life happen." Anyone who is brave enough to pick up a camera and make a film; those angels, those magnificent souls, who make movies happen--they are my heroes.


Sand will be screening August 19 through 26 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2011 program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Sand and the rest of the films in the DocuWeeks Los Angeles Shorts Program, click here.