Director/Producers Frances McElroy and María Teresa Rodríguez discuss the challenges of communicating with subjects abroad, the difficulties of working with governments in conflict and how political rifts between countries can have heartbreaking human consequences.
What led you to make MIRROR DANCE?
Frances: I was intrigued by a Philadelphia newspaper article I read about Margarita de Saá White in 2000. It detailed how this Cuban-born woman, who runs a ballet academy in my hometown of Narberth, was a former prima ballerina with the National Ballet of Cuba. She had a twin sister living in Cuba who had also been a ballerina. I was struck by the “mirroring” of the sisters’ lives, despite their living in such vastly different societies. The subject of twins and the international political aspects of the story also peaked my interest, along with the fact that I had loved ballet since childhood. I wrote to Margarita about the possibility of doing a documentary about her story and she agreed to meet.
How did you first meet Margarita and Ramona de Saá?
Frances: We first met Margarita in the fall of 2000, during an exploratory meeting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet. During this meeting, she and her American-born husband John White, also a former dancer with the National Ballet of Cuba, began telling us stories about their eventful lives in Havana during the period leading up to and immediately following the Revolution. We first met Ramona in Havana in April 2002, during a research and development trip for the project. Our conversations with Ramona proved to be key to the future of the production since she arranged for us to meet the appropriate authorities in the Cuban Ministry of Culture, which granted approval to proceed with the project from the Cuban side. They also provided access to individuals and organizations key to the story, such as the National School of Ballet and the National Ballet of Cuba.
Tell us about the interview process used in the film. How did you gain access to the subjects, and gain their trust?
Maria: The documentary is a combination of interviews, verité and memory sequences. For the more formal interviews, Fran and I would compile a list of questions to use as a springboard. (As I am the Spanish speaker of the two, I did all of the interviews in Cuba, and we both conducted interviews in the U.S.) However, some of the more revealing moments would come during a verité sequence when, for example, Margarita would just starting talking to us about a memory or an observation.
Margarita lives in the Philadelphia suburbs, so over time we were able to develop a friendship with her and her family. Both Fran and I started taking adult ballet classes at Margarita’s school, the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, at the beginning of the project. I have since devolved into taking Pilates classes there when I can make it, but Fran, who lives within walking distance of the Academy, remains a committed student! Due to distance, funding constraints and Ramona’s hectic schedule, we were not able to spend as much informal time with her in Havana. We first met Ramona on our R&D [research and development] trip to Havana, in which we did no formal filming. (I brought a one chip camera for location scouting and archival research.) This trip helped enormously to solidify our relationship with Ramona on a personal level.
What was the most difficult part of this film to make?
Frances: Making travel arrangements to Cuba proved to be the most difficult aspect of the production. Logistics and communication between the U.S. and Cuba are very difficult. Coordinating the receipt of an official journalist license from our government and obtaining the appropriate visas from the Cuban government proved to be quite a juggling act. Also, communicating with Ramona in Havana from our base in Philadelphia was not easy. The distance and difficulty in communicating with Ramona also prevented us from building as close a relationship with her as we did with Margarita.
What you do want to achieve with the film?
Maria: It is my hope that MIRROR DANCE will offer an opportunity for healing to those Cuban-Americans and Cuban nationals whose families have been split by political ideology, as well as speak to anyone who has experienced displacement and political intolerance.
Frances: I personally hope that this story will make viewers, including political leaders, think more about the very human consequences of international conflicts and the heartbreaking, lasting effects they have on the personal lives of individual families.
What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude?
Maria: We started preliminary filming in November of 2000. I gathered some archival footage from the National Archives and a few pictures that Margarita gave me, and cut together the first sample reel (sans Ramona’s side of the story). A year later we raised R&D [research and development] money and went on our first trip to Cuba. We met Ramona and officials in the Ministry of Culture who granted us permission to shoot in Cuba. Then we received money from Latino Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts, which truly allowed us to begin shooting the story in earnest. We continued shooting in Narberth, Pennsylvania and went back to shoot in Cuba in 2003, and then returned to Havana again in 2004 for the twins’ reunion.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Maria: What keeps me motivated are the amazing people and stories that exist in the world. Embarking on a project is always stimulating. It presents me with new challenges and histories and experiences I could only have making films. The road to getting funded is often a long and difficult one, but I believe that if you persist, you will find a way to get your project funded.
Frances: What keeps me interested in this work is that it’s possible to present meaningful stories about intriguing people, in a creative way, to a large audience. I enjoy the process of finding and shaping an idea, the collaborative nature of production and the interaction with other creative people. I keep going in the hope that my productions might make people think a little more about the challenges facing their world and be inspired to work for positive change.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Maria: Public television seemed the natural outlet for MIRROR DANCE. Fran and I had both worked within and for public television previously, and the subject matter and approach we wanted to take making MIRROR DANCE seemed particularly suited to public television.
What are your three favorite films?
Children of Heaven (Majidi)
Local Hero (Forsythe)
Il Postino (Radford)
Maria: That is too hard to say! I like so many aspects of different films: documentary, fiction and experimental.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Maria: Well, for a good portion of the time we made the film, I worked other jobs to pay the bills, so my social life, at times, took a nosedive.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
Maria: I think perhaps I might be a cultural anthropologist, cultural geographer, community activist or a poet. Ultimately, I think I’d be figuring out a way to become a filmmaker.
Frances: The dream scenario: painting in an Irish village—the reality: working for an arts-related organization on projects which are concerned with education and/or community development.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Maria: Be passionate about your subject matter. That will get you through the hard times.
What sparks your creativity?
Frances: My creativity is sparked by inspiring, personal stories of people whose work I admire in a variety of fields, but often the arts.
Maria: Travel. Books. Film. Talking to People. Art.