The making of Boxers and Ballerinas

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November 18, 2004

The two young directors needed a birds-eye shot of the city at sunset. They headed inside of the tallest building in the city, an antiquated apartment building. The elevator was broken, so they climbed 17 flights of stairs in the tropical heat, cameras over their shoulders. Knocking on the door of an apartment, they crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.

When the door opened, they asked if they could enter to take a shot of the skyline and promised to be quickly in and out of the resident’s home. No problem, they were told. While touring the apartment to see which window would work best, they discovered a balcony overlooking the cityscape. After a few shots, the resident of the apartment brought out a bottle of rum. After a few shots, the stories began to flow. Long after the sun had set, Brit Marling and Mike Cahill descended the 17 flights with the images they needed, a bit of a buzz and an invitation to eat dinner the next night. From then on, they ate every dinner with their adopted Cuban family.

“Now, if I ever go back to Santiago,” Marling said, “I don’t even know their number, but I know that I could go to their house and they’d take me in and feed me again. We formed such an intimate relationship with total strangers. Theirs was a fearless hospitality.”

Georgetown graduates Marling (CAS ‘04) and Cahill (CAS ‘01) directed Boxers & Ballerinas, a documentary about Cuban youth in both Cuba and Miami. Along with the film’s producer, Nick Shumaker (CAS ‘01), also a Georgetown alum, they gambled on an evolving idea that took them, over the course of two years, to a marketable, full-length documentary.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Documentaries are suddenly hot. Between Capturing the Friedmans, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Tarnation, documentary filmmaking is becoming unexpectedly mainstream. This popularity positions Boxers & Ballerinas on the brink of a growing trend.

Boxers & Ballerinas may have begun small, but its prospects are quickly growing. The crew will hear by the end of the month whether or not the film has been accepted to the Sundance film festival.

The film shows-with vibrant, evocative, lyrical images- the trials and successes of two boxers and two ballerinas. Two are Cuban, two are Cuban-American. In essence, it is a film that explores freedom in the lives of two athletes and two artists following their passions. Below that surface, it is a film by young people about young people.

“We chose boxers and ballerinas because not only are both such a source of Cuban pride, but those are two types of disciplines where you can leave very easily,” Marling said. “These young people are faced with the choice of ‘to defect or not to defect.’ And it becomes really interesting when at 18-years-old you have to decide: Are you going to leave your family and everything you know?”

Behind the lens

Brit Marling was on the right track.

She had an Economics and Studio Art double major, striking good looks, a 4.0 GPA and a job as a summer analyst at Goldman Sachs. Her plan, as she saw it then, was to graduate in the spring of 2004 and go into investment banking.

Her internship changed the plan. After a summer working grueling hours as a Wall Street intern, Marling was burned out and disillusioned.

“I couldn’t imagine doing that, especially when you’re young and your time is so valuable,” she said. “The people around you are so smart and so cool and you just have no time to talk to any of them.”

Marling paused her college career. She took a leave of absence from Georgetown, where her interest in film had been sharpened through digital art classes with Professor Roberto Bocci and work at GUTV, and decided to follow her gut on a good idea. She told her parents that she would be going to Cuba to direct a film with her boyfriend and co-conspirator, Cahill, and their friend and the film’s producer, Shumaker.

If the film was a team effort, Shumaker was the team’s manager. Shumaker, who smokes Cuban cigars and looks listeners dead-on when he speaks, just wanted to “make a film about Cuba.” Sheer tenacity brought the idea to fruition.

He and Cahill graduated from Georgetown together in 2001 and collaborated in 2002 on a documentary about D.C. go-go music called The Pocket. In 2003, when Shumaker called him with another film idea, Cahill was game.

Although young people were both behind and in front of the lens of Boxers & Ballerinas, more experienced members fill out the crew as well.

Craig Wedren, the vocalist/guitarist of the late rock band Shudder to Think, scored big-budget movies School of Rock, Laurel Canyon and more recently P.S. He signed on to score Boxers & Ballerinas early in the process. Part of the fun of the project, he said, was the youth and excitement of the crew.

“It just sounded like an amazing project,” Wedren said. “I’d never been to Cuba before and had been ob … well, not really obsessed, but I’d always been super-moved by afro-Cuban polyrhythms. The project came along and it was like lightbulbs a go-go over my head. I got to go record all of these Cuban musicians and then filter it through my Midwest Jewish punk-rock.”

Wedren, who splits his time evenly between band records and scoring movies, created a subtle yet thematic score that ebbs and flows with the images Marling and Cahill present. He also plans to release a CD soundtrack for the film.

And after seeing a five minute trailer of Boxers & Ballerinas last spring, producer’s representative Andrew Hurwitz agreed to rep. the film. Hurwitz has represented some of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore’s work, Roger Doger and The Anniversary Party. His presence lifts the film into the big leagues.

That’s the idea

In February 2003, Shumaker traveled to Cuba with his friend and the executive producer of the film, Charlie Johnstone. Johnstone’s photography habit necessitated trips to Cuba-a photographer’s paradise-and he took Shumaker along.

The two first suggested a documentary tracing the lives of Cuban prostitutes. But before beginning, they had to meet with Cuban officials to O.K. their artistic endeavors. Their meetings produced nothing but quickly slamming doors, so Shumaker and Johnstone packed up and went home.

“We went back to the U.S. with our tails between our legs,” Shumaker said. Later, while flipping through Johnstone’s photo books, he was struck by the poetic contrast between two types of photographs: The young boxers throwing punches in dilapidated gyms and the equally young ballerinas practicing pli?s in studios in Havana.

Again, Shumaker called Cahill.

“Mike and I just liked the juxtaposition and moved forward with meetings trying to get the Cuban government’s endorsement,” Shumaker said.

Following boxers and ballerinas, two sources of national pride, Marling, Cahill and Shumaker found the doors opening, rather than shutting, in front of them.

Marling signed onto the project just after its inception in summer 2003. The trio packed up and spent the next six months shuttling between Miami, Havana and Mexico.

The little thing with big hopes

Marling, Cahill and Shumaker arrived at the Havana International Airport in August 2003 with cameras, microphones, hard drives, ideas and little else.

“In the beginning it was a little, little thing,” Marling said. “Me, Mike, two laptops and two cameras. We went down there and figured everything out as we went, running out of money every few weeks. Nick networked all these people and pulled money out of nowhere and we’d keep going, but there were so many times when we were just stuck.”

In Miami, one of the biggest challenges they faced was convincing people that they were for real.

“Our age was suspect,” Shumaker said. “I was 23, Mike was 23 and Brit had just turned 21. We were just trying to convince people that we’re a force to be reckoned with.”

In Cuba, everything is a process. The forces to be reckoned with there are time, bureaucracy and the unexpected. A task that could take two hours to be completed anywhere else takes an entire day of energy. The filmmakers discovered the slow pace and laborious effort required to push their film ahead through trial and error.

“When you get down there,” said Marling, “you experience for yourself how difficult it is to just get three meals a day, to get from one place to another there.”

One afternoon Marling and Cahill decided to get a long-desired shot of a Cuban flag painted on the outside of Havana’s seawall. Slinging their legs over the 10-foot wall, they climbed down. They circled the painting on the rocks below, wanting the perfect shot. But clouds soon rolled in and the ocean began to churn.

Rain fell and the waves threatened. Shoving their cameras beneath their sweatshirts, Marling and Cahill looked for a way out. The wall was too high to jump, and they couldn’t set down the cameras on the now-soaking rocks. Cahill finally saw some kids walking past and shouted for help. He jumped, grabbed their hands and climbed up, helping Marling out of the waves.

Governmental skittishness, also, threatened the production more than once. According to Shumaker, the Cuban officials who okayed the project were not used to two key aspects of the production: The use of wireless sound technology and young people filming other young people. Wireless microphones allowed for unparalleled candidness among the youths they tracked, which made government officials nervous.

“Midway through the process they got curious as to why we didn’t have a sound man,” Shumaker said. “It was interesting to work through the process.”

The film was far from finished when the crew left Cuba. Upon returning to the U.S., Marling and Cahill holed up in an apartment in Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood and created a story out of their raw footage.

“We didn’t shoot a film, we just shot tons of life happening,” Marling said. “Suddenly we just had to create a story out of 450 hours of life.”

Crossing the gulf

Boxers & Ballerinas shies away from value judgments of both Cuban and American society. By presenting stories and facts rather than opinions and narration, the documentary hopes to enlighten the complex issues surrounding the contentious relationship stretching across the gulf.

In this way the film follows in the footsteps of Balseros, a 2002 documentary that follows the lives of seven Cuban “rafters” who took to the seas in 1994. Directors Carlos Bosch and Josep M. Domenech made their documentary using seven years of footage and years of directing experience. Acclaimed on both sides of the Gulf of Mexico, Balseros received the award for best foreign documentary at the 24th annual International Festival of New Latin-American Film in Havana. It was also nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary in Los Angeles.

Boxers & Ballerinas will open for a pre-premiere screening at the same international film festival in Havana next month. The Cuban government, however, nearly pulled the production from the festival, which it hosts every year in December, when it saw a transcript of the film’s dialogue. After some fast talking and explanation, the government agreed to allow the film a running slot: Dec. 8, in a small art-house theater. But the film will run without the state-subsidized advertisement granted many other films in the festival.

The waiting game

Youth may equate with inexperience, but it does not negate the legitimacy of a good idea. Instead, it may provide the idea with energy, passion and tenacity.

This innovation and independence is evident in Boxers & Ballerinas. The film is infused with the passion and insight of its makers. Its goal is a decent-sized theatrical release.

Right now Shumaker is in Havana tying up loose ends to ensure a smooth delivery of the film at its first screening. Cahill and Marling are working on subtitling the film. Now based out of Los Angeles, the two are, in keeping with the trend of do-it-yourself filmmaking, putting the translated dialogue into the film scene by scene.

This process, according to Marling, is “such a good example of what this has been like. Technically speaking, we’ve broken all the rules, done this so amateur-ly, but it’s all worked out.”

Boxers & Ballerinas itself is still in Havana, in the process of sound mixing.

In L.A., Marling and Cahill are waiting to hear from the Sundance film festival.

“We’re playing the horrible Cuban waiting game,” Marling said. “They’re waiting for the embargo to be lifted, we’re waiting to hear back from Sundance … “

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