The Making Of
Director/Producer Gwendolen Cates talks about switching from photography to film, whittling down 120 hours of footage and how socks can come in handy when recording sound.
What led you to make this film?
There are several reasons that I was compelled to make this film. To begin with, I’ve been a still photographer for many years, specializing in portraits and features, and became intrigued by the idea of exploring storytelling and portraiture with a medium that allows people to speak in their own words and incorporates music and movement. Jock and I met when I photographed him for my book Indian Country (Grove Press, 2001), which is a portrait of contemporary Native America. We became good friends, and a few years later he asked me to make the film. An important motivation for me in deciding to undertake the project was that, while I grew up in NYC, I’d spent a great deal of time on the Navajo reservation since I was a child, in the area that Jock’s family is from, thanks to my father who lived there for the two years before I was born in order to learn the language. This film was a very personal project, an exciting creative challenge, and an opportunity to open windows into worlds normally unseen, both Navajo and ballet, through the telling of Jock’s remarkable and inspirational story.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
The union restrictions at the New York State Theater were definitely a challenge. I had to travel overseas in order to film performance and behind-the-scenes footage freely. After lengthy negotiations, and thanks to the support of the company and the stagehands union, I was granted unprecedented access to the New York State Theater. The creative challenge was weaving the various threads of Jock’s story into a cohesive, balanced and accessible whole.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this film, besides the story of an incredible ballet dancer?
When I began this film I was not a balletomane by any means, so I hope that people will learn about the remarkable beauty, athleticism and sacrifice of the art form of ballet, just as I did during the making of this film. Importantly, this is not simply a dance film. I also hope that some of the prevailing stereotypes about Native people will be challenged. The film is a portrait of a man, a contemporary Native person, an artist grappling with retiring at age 40. The universal themes of the film are its strength...: humanity, identity, family, transition. I hope that people are touched by Jock’s story on a very human level.
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to show?
I shot over 120 hours of footage! There is so much more that I wish I could have included—beautiful dance footage, behind-the-scenes footage of the dancers, more of Jock’s humor and his family’s story, but that will have to wait for the sequel.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
The audience response so far has been incredible. The film has received standing ovations at virtually all the festival screenings. It’s very gratifying to see that the choice to make a non-traditional film in terms of both dance and Native content is resonating so well with people. All the people featured in the film have seen it, and they are all very happy with it. Everyone—the dancers, Jock’s family—was so supportive during the entire process.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
That’s an understatement! This is my first film, and it has certainly been a learning experience. I had no idea when I began that it would be such an enormous undertaking. However, it was also a privilege to have the trust of so many, something I took very seriously—Jock, his family, the company and the dancers. This trust, the rush of the creative process and the amazing opportunity to tell an important story are what kept me motivated.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
From the beginning I believed that public television was the right home for this film. I knew that Jock’s story would reach the widest audience possible, and the broadest demographic. This being my first film, I could only dream that it would actually happen. ITVS called me at a critical time during post-production, and not only told me that the film had been chosen for the Independent Lens series, a dream come true, but also gave much needed completion funds. It was kind of a fairy tale for a first-time filmmaker, and I feel very fortunate.
Is there anything else you’d like to share in this Q&A—interesting anecdotes regarding filming, a commonly asked question by audiences, etc.?
My friends have said they wish there had a been another camera filming the making of this film. I remember being on the reservation when the sound guy I’d hired didn’t show up because his truck broke down. I was struggling with wind noise and, while filming a scene in an elder’s hogan, I took my sneaker off, then my sock, and wrapped the sock around the mic while all the Navajos who had no clue why I was doing that, and probably thought I must be a little nuts, politely pretended not to notice.
Jock and I have been amused by some of the questions that people ask. Sometimes they’ll ask him how he feels about retiring, and we wonder if they watched the film or just showed up for the Q&A. But mainly we are struck by how moved people are.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?In my life? Just about everything else! It was a completely consuming endeavor. With the film? Of course there are always things you wish you could have done, had more footage of, had asked about in interviews. But overall I am pretty happy with how things turned out.
Get the DVD >>