MARRAKECH, MOROCCO: First-time feature director, Anna Rose Holmer, has wound up a year-and-a-half of international travel, with her unusual, but striking coming-of-age and dance film, “The Fits,” at the Marrakech International Film Festival. Holmer first premiered the film at the 72nd Venice Film Festival, last year, but the picture has been in-demand for all of this year. Other high-profile festival slots have followed, including Sundance 2016, and the prestigious (and choosy) New Directors/New Films. The film has already opened in the U.S. and Canada, and parts of Europe. France and the U.K. follow early next year.
Studying cinematography at New York University, Holmer cut her teeth in filmmaking, working on a number of shorts and some documentaries, for the New York City Ballet, before she made “The Fits” with the help of the Biennale College Cinema program in Italy. For NY City Ballet, Holmer produced the feature documentary, “Ballet 422” which went to the Tribeca Film Festival and followed the rise of choreographer Justin Peck.
“The Fits” follows the story of an eleven -year-old tomboy, Toni (Royalty Hightower), who wants to dance. But the narrative becomes much more layered beyond that premise. The film takes an unusual approach to telling the tale, in that it works narrative into the bodies of its young dance troupe, and it is sparse on dialogue. It doesn’t exactly conclude with a grand dance performance. After a pandemic of unexpected fits breaks out amongst the dancers, the film takes us on an unexpected journey, with dance as the protagonist. The Cincinnati community kids group, Q-Kidz, plays in the film.
Are you a dance fan?
Yes, I happened to fall into dance film, when a friend and mentor of mine made a film called “NY Export: Opus Jazz,” that was conceived of and produced by NY City dancers. I co-directed and produced a companion documentary to it. Through that process, we made a film, and I really studied a lot of dance on film and fell in love. Ellen Bar became director of media projects at the NY City ballet, and commissioned a lot of short films. I got to produce quite a few shorts, then produced a feature-length documentary on choreographer Justin Peck’s second work for the company that was directed by Jody Lee Lipes. When I was producing that, I got the seed for “The Fits.” I wanted to explore dance in a very different way on film than I had seen before. How are you developing the language of dance on film?
I had been working fairly exclusively with ballet on film, and ballet is a very formal language. I wanted to think about every frame of the film being about dance, and bring the narrative and place it in the body. I think of the film as a dance film, from frame one to closing credits. So, every element about how she moves and why she moves, and who is moving around her, is narratively preconceived.
Is performance part of directing?
I think there is a performative aspect to directing. A lot of what I learned has to do with what leadership means. I’m not naturally an extroverted person but that is different to being communicative or assertive. If you are running a set, with a cast of fifty kids, and twenty people, in order to best serve them, and I do think that directing is in service to your team, you have to show up, and perform and be vulnerable, and that is physically and emotionally demanding. For the director, that continues past the film. It is being a body in which people project the film, and have conversations with the film. That’s demanding on me. Royalty has taken on a lot of that. She plays Toni in the film
How have you developed physical language on film?
I can’t zoom out that far. It is how I read film, and I think about films that were formative for me, like [Robert] Bresson, and [Steve] McQueen. I’m reading them as very physical films that have to deal with bodies moving through space. I am borrowing from those I admire, and trying to build on that. I don’t think that often we say what we mean. Dialogue is not the strongest way for me to communicate the essence. I love cinema, because you can contradict what you are saying through sound design, and the colors and camera. There is a way to say something and complicate and contradict. You can trick your audience and get their trust. For me, cinema is not just dialogue which is why I love this art form.
What is the most challenging part of combining narrative and dance?
One of the most challenging parts was working with the dance form genre. There are so many expectations, and there are dancers, and a dance team, and the audience expectations. That movie never happens on screen. The episode in “The Fits” prevents that from happening, they never compete. It is all internal. It is not external. The most difficult part was managing the audience expectations, and letting them know early on that is not what they are going to see, but keeping them engaged.
What’s the film about?
It is about really seeing yourself for the first time, through the way in which others see you. Those two identities don’t always align but Toni becomes very aware of herself through the gaze of others. Self-identity as a projected identity.
How is it being a young female filmmaker, given the statistics?
I started in camera, and the numbers are worse in camera. It is top of the pyramid, all the way down. It is everywhere you look in the industry and in our representation in government. This is not unique to cinema, and if you look at the numbers for women of color, it is even worse. I am very aware of the numbers and data. It is depressing. Our film was very gender balanced, with female heads of departments. I look at filmmakers like Ava Duvernay who is making progress in leaps and bounds, in terms of who she is hiring. Awareness is one step. The ultimate privilege is to be able to create and fail, and that these failures are representative of you, not an entire group’s ability to create work. We are far from that.
Do you want to have a particular focus on telling stories about women?
I think we all carry unique perspectives with us, so I don’t know what it would be like to be any other type of filmmaker. I am interested in seeing complex women on screen. I hope that it is not just me and my films, but the films I want to seek out, but I also want to see new narratives on film. I think cinema has a very narrow gaze, and I want to break it all down. “The Fits” traveling around the world for a year-and-a-half is surprising, and I look at a film like “Moonlight” dominating the critical space in the U.S. right now. It is a combination of combining artistic vision and finance, as films need to operate in the real world. I think you have to be hopeful. Knowing as little as I do about the next films hitting the screen, the voices are out there. It is about the gate keepers taking their blinders off.
Why did you become a filmmaker?
I got in through camera and still photography. Cinema felt like a synthesis of many things that excite me. I like that it is an art form that involves many people. My way in was to hold the camera.
Has anything taken you by surprise, now that you are making films?
The cycle. You read about filmmakers that made thirty or forty films. That’s years of your life. The long cycle of it, and maintaining the connection with your work through those. I was not prepared for that and still need to practice.
Got a future projects brewing?
I love directing fiction. Hoping to build there, and am reading scripts, and working with my cowriter on things. I am ready to go again.