Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Kelly Richardson--'Without A Net'
By KJ Relth
Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 3 through August 30 in New York City and 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 Kelly Richardson, director of Without A Net.
Synopsis: Djeferson, Bárbara, Rayana, and Platini live in a drug controlled slum of Rio de Janeiro. Their families are struggling, their homes are physically unstable, and everyone they know has dropped out of school. When a big-top circus tent suddenly appears in a nearby parking lot, they decide to take a chance. They learn trapeze, acrobatics, juggling, and contortion, and then audition for the end-of-year show, rehearse, and prepare for the curtains to part on opening night. Along the way, Without A Net explores the connections between risk, desire, poverty, and circus and celebrates the perseverance and resilience of youth in the face of tremendous odds.
IDA: Last week Without A Net was at DocuWeeks in Los Angeles. How was that?
Kelly J Richardson: It was wonderful! We had an especially strong turnout from the LA acrobatic and circus community. On opening night, a couple dozen local acrobats did an acro flash mob outside of the theater, and then a professional trio did a pre-film contortion and acrobatics performance inside the theater. It was a great way to kick off the premiere week! Then we had good screenings, good audiences and good Q&A's all week. Also, Without A Net received some very good reviews—it was recommended by the LA Weekly and the Village Voice, and written up by the Los Angeles Times and LA Latino Weekly and several others. So all in all, LA DocuWeeks was great!
IDA: I understand that you studied dance and are trained in acrobatics. So how does a circus performer get started in documentary filmmaking?
KR: My performance art and my journey as a filmmaker are somewhat interwoven. As a kid I was a gymnast, and I've been an athlete of various sports all my life. I'm also interested in new experiences and in the middle of college I studied abroad in Madrid, and while there [...] I enrolled in trapeze and acrobatics classes at a local circus. It was fun to be with a foreign circus and it was great to learn about the culture through that window.
Two years later, I was traveling a little bit after college and I was kind of on the lookout for a circus to join. I found one in Bahia in the Northeast of Brazil. In that circus [...] there was also a social project which was funded by various organizations inside and outside of Brazil. The goal was to [bring] children and youth living in poverty in the area to train for free at the circus. Through doing so, [the participants could] learn skills that they could transfer to other parts of their lives—things like cooperation, team building, how to set goals and achieve them, how to face their fears, those kinds of things which are really valuable and essential to getting along in society.
I was interested in that general concept of using circus as a tool for social change. More importantly though, I got to know the performers in that social project. There's such a strong component of risk and excitement in the circus. It's an art where people show off how risky it is and how brave they are—so the riggers are always lifting the aerial apparatuses higher so the audience can feel more nervous and impressed by the potential danger. Another classic circus act is the tightrope walker pretending to almost fall and recovering. As I heard the stories and watched the acts, I was noticing various strong parallels between the way the performers told about the risks of their day-to-day lives and the way they exhibited the risk and excitement of the art that they practiced in the circus and that to me was the initial seed that later grew into the documentary.
IDA: But how did you pick up that camera for the first time? How did you understand how to edit and put a story together visually—a lot of those various skills that people go to school for. How did you get started with that?
KR: I found out that "social circus" (that's the term for all projects that teach circus skills to at-risk youth) exists in many parts of the world, and Brazil is really a leader in this movement. So I applied for a Fulbright grant to go back and be involved in the movement again since I had this particular insider's perspective on it. I had about a year from the time I applied until the time I returned to Brazil with the grant to take lots of classes, and be involved in other people's productions and do my own short films. So I had about a year of really good filmmaking education all over the Bay Area at Film Arts Foundation (before it merged with the San Francisco Film Society), BAVC, UC Berkeley, City College—a bunch of places. I also worked on a lot of sets and just got as much experience as I could in that time I had before returning to Brazil to make the film.
IDA: The inspiration for making the film seems pretty straightforward since the subject is something in which you are so deeply entrenched. What was it about this particular circus in Rio that made you want to tell their story?
KR: Once I was awarded the Fulbright, I had some time to define my project—how exactly I wanted it to be. So knowing that there were a bunch of social circus project in Brazil, I went to visit a few others besides the one that I had gotten to know in Bahia. I found the performers in Rio fascinating. There's a lot going on in Rio. It's this impressive mix of rich and poor, beach and mountains, and lots and lots of energy. Then in the circus, the people that I met had great stories. Djeferson was one of the first people I met. He's very gregarious and fun to be around--a big personality along with his big physical size. He introduced me to some of the members of his family, and he was laughing a lot and excited about the idea of me being there. I got to know him a little bit at that time and I thought, "Oh, this guy would be great as a character, and other people should hear these stories." Usually, his stories and stories from that area don't travel very much.
IDA: Outside of Djeferson, did you always know that you wanted your story to focus on those other three individuals also, or did you follow a lot of them and then just edit it down so that we only heard these four stories?
KR: I wanted the film to be intimate and somewhat collaborative. I didn't want it to feel like I came in and filmed them and then left and that was that. I wanted them to have time to get to know me a little bit and see if this was something that they wanted to do. Djeferson was extremely enthusiastic from the beginning. Some of the others got into it as they got to know me. Bárbara the acrobat and her friend Rayana, they were a little stand-offish at the beginning. But once we got to know me better and we started sharing jokes, they decided they were interested in participating in it. We had some more footage of some other characters that we ended up cutting down, like Coach Allan. We felt like these four main characters had the strongest stories and that they serve as good examples for a larger picture we were trying to create. I think that they really wanted to do it, and so they were open to and available for interviews and allowed me to come to their homes and welcomed that.
IDA: I know that resources were probably pretty limited while you were over there. A lot of those kids have to deal with family issues and with just getting food. On top of those things, what were some of the challenges you encountered when making this film? What were some of the things you did to overcome those challenges?
KR: I encountered a lot of challenges making this film. In addition to the technical things—as I mentioned, I was pretty new at using the camera and recording audio and everything else, but luckily I had no major technical disasters—there were a lot of things that were challenging to me. Working on a film where people are telling their very personal stories—and you, as a filmmaker, are taking those stories away to an audience that they don't know, well, gives you a lot of things to think about, especially when there's a huge difference in social class, economic reality, privilege and education—these people are all very smart but they've all dropped out of school or haven't been to school at all. Djeferson has never really been to school. He's illiterate.
IDA:You were in the unique position of not only knowing a lot about circus but having been there yourself. So did you decide to step in and help her a little bit? How did you navigate that?
KR: It was really hard to navigate. There were situations where the performers were doing their acts without proper security. As circus performers, we always want to have security in case there's a mistake. Of course, I come from the US where we have a much more litigious society, so at the gyms where I trained, things like that would never fly. It would never be allowed. I definitely tried to separate myself and think, "This is a different place. This is not my place. I'm here to film this interesting thing that's happening in the world and our realities are very different." Sometimes that was hard.
I was always reminding myself there are a lot of differences between my own experience and their experience. I found myself not saying things that I might have said if I hadn't been with the camera. If I hadn't been there as a filmmaker I might have had suggestions for how the circus should run their program, and how they should have better equipment. But that really wasn't my place, but sometimes it was hard to stand back and not say anything. As far as Rayana, there was one point where I said to her that I was concerned about the way that she was training. I felt compassion for all these people. That was one of the big challenges I faced, because there were a lot of times that I felt I couldn't say what I would have liked to say if I hadn't been there with a film. Contortion is fine for the body, and I am a contortionist as well. I'm not saying that contortion is not good for the body, but training in the wrong way can be dangerous. At one point I said something like that.
But that's another thing. Most of them are teenagers. So they all know everything more than anybody else does. And furthermore, I'm a foreigner. There was a lot of that kind of interplay also. And plus, [Rayana]'s extremely talented, and she's a much better contortionist than I am. So who am I to say that might not be good for her? Also, there were some coaches who had suggestions for them, and because they were teenagers they were the way that teenagers are. There's something really delightful about that. They're sure of themselves. They're so courageous, and they're so determined and so committed. They are lovely people.
IDA: You mentioned earlier that it was sort of hard sometimes to listen to these stories especially with these subjects knowing that they are going to be told to audiences who they might not ever get to interact with. As you've screened Without A Net in different screenings and countries and especially last week in Los Angeles, how have audiences reacted to the film?
KR: We've had really good responses from audience and critics. Audiences have said it feels like it's an honest film, and intimate, which was one of our big goals, and that the characters share a lot about themselves and about their lives. Also that it's nuanced with multiple layers. We explore the theme of the duality of risks in their day-to-day lives and risks and excitement in the circus. I think in that context, the characters develop a kind of personality where they embrace risk, in fact, thrive in it. An example of that is the scene where the two guys climb the rock and decide to jump off, into the water.
IDA: Oh yeah, that made me really anxious. I was thinking, "They don't know what's under the water!"
KR: (laughs) They embrace that rush of adrenaline that comes with putting their lives on the line because they do it all the time just to survive. So that was one of the themes we liked developing and the audience comments on that sometimes. A lot of people ask about Platini, the littlest boy. He's the one who lost the older brother because of his involvement with the drug trade. A lot of people want to know where are these characters now and what are they up to. I [keep in touch] pretty regularly with almost all of them and know what they are up to. They have lots of difficult things going on in their lives, and many of those things are touched upon in the film. Life is never calm for them. But all things considered, I'd say they're doing very well.
IDA: Have the four main characters or anyone else involved with the circus seen the film?
KR: They've seen it at lots of different stages. Mostly [the subject's] realities are in that area and their stories don't get out of that area. They can see what's happening in other parts of the world from watching TV, and they're very connected in that way, and they're online, so they can see what's happening in the rest of the world. But it's a limited view through that lens. So I thought a lot about what it would feel like to know that I, a foreigner and older than them, was leaving with footage of them telling me intimate stories. Like Platini, the little boy talking about losing his brother—that's a very personal story. I really tried to put myself in their shoes and thought a lot about what it would feel like if I were them. Though we got to know each other, still, I'm a foreigner and when production was over, I was leaving. It was very important to me to be very transparent.
When I filmed them in their homes, I gave them all the footage that I filmed. I made a DVD right away after I went to their homes and I gave it to them the next day with the whole footage so there wouldn't be any surprises down the line. They have also seen the film edited together at various stages because I went back to do the one-year later footage, and I showed them a rough cut at that point. Then I did another trip for some pick up shots, and I showed them another rough cut. So they are familiar with what the film is about. They haven't seen it in its final version but at least the main characters [...] have seen most of the film.
IDA: So now that this film is done and you've entered it into DocuWeeks, have you had a chance to look beyond that at what's coming next? Do you want to make another film? Are you thinking about going back into doing circus?
KR: I continue to practice circus because I love it. But I don't perform any more... at least I have no plans to right now. As far as Without A Net, we have some more festivals coming up, and we're talking to distributors. As far as my career as a filmmaker, I plan to keep working in film. I got the bug! I enjoy being able to construct stories and convey my ideas through the medium of film. I think it's a way of encapsulating an idea and reaching across the divide to affect another person. The whole experience of making Without A Net was very rich and full for me. I learned so much about myself in the process and I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to have the people in Without A Net in my life.
Without A Net will be screening August 10 through 16 at Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles, and August 17 through the 23 at IFC Center in New York.