Big things happening with ‘How to Dance in Ohio’
January 27, 2015
Documentary filmmaker Alexandra Shiva is interested in stories about people searching for belonging.
In 2001, she made the award-winning "Bombay Eunuch," which examined the life of a family of eunuchs who live in India.
The subjects of her 2006 film, "Plot Summary," were musical-theater loving teens enrolled in the Stagedoor Manor summer camp in the Catskills.
This year, Shiva focused on teens diagnosed with autism in "How to Dance in Ohio."
The film, which is one of the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition pieces and was recently acquired by HBO Documentary Films, follows three girls who are on the autism spectrum as they prepare for a special prom organized by their psychologist.
"How to Dance in Ohio" was inspired by a friend, Shiva said during an interview with The Park Record.
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"I have a very close friend who has a 16-year-old daughter who is autistic and nonverbal," Shiva explained. "As I watched her grow up, I found myself wondering where she will belong and what will her future look like when she comes of age.
"I wondered whether or not she would have a job and be able to live on her own," Shiva said. "I really wanted to find a way to tell that story."
The filmmaker also wanted to show the story in a way that would relate to the widest audience possible.
"I do think there are many misconceptions about autism and it’s hard for a lot of people to visualize someone who is on the autism spectrum who is not a child," she said.
"Most of the information out there is about little kids. A lot of times the information is about cause and cure, so there isn’t a lot of information about what it means to be on the spectrum and different in those particular ways."
The issues Shiva wanted to address included:
What are some of the challenges of these individuals who are on the spectrum when they come of age?
How can they figure out who they are and what their capabilities are?
What does the future look like for their parents?
"I found all those questions were very important and I wanted to tell shed some light on them," she said.
Through her research, Shiva contacted a psychologist who works with teens who have different levels of autism.
"His whole strategy was ‘If you’re going to teach social cues to those who have trouble recognizing those cues, you’d better make it fun,’" Shiva said. "So, he decided to host a prom dance at a nightclub and he was going to spend months preparing these girls in group-therapy sessions for this event."
During the sessions, the psychologist talks about the point and reasons why connecting with others is important and what it means to talk with someone and what is appropriate to say and what isn’t.
"As I observed this, something much larger came out of this to me," Shiva said. "I found we could all relate to this in some ways. There isn’t anyone who, in some point in their lives, hasn’t had those types of difficulties. The only difference is that they are magnified for these girls."
Shiva wondered what it would mean to them if she showed them that others have difficult times relating to others, too.
"That was the goal of the film," she said. "We also wanted to immerse the viewers into their community so the audience could align themselves with their goals and cheer for them when they achieve them."
At first the group was skeptical of the crew.
"I understood that, so we had a series of interactions when we didn’t film anything," she said. "We just talked."
Shiva’s crew also held a town hall-style meeting and introduced themselves so the girls and families could meet everyone.
"I talked about why I wanted to make the film and we introduced the producers, camera crew and sound crew," Shiva said. "That way these people knew who were going to be in their presence, because filming group therapy was going to be an intimate experience."
In addition, Shiva spent a week meeting the kids individually.
"We would sit in a room and they would come in one at a time," she said. "We would show them the camera and they would touch it. We showed them the boom mic and they touched that.
"We also talked about where I was going to be and where the camera was going to be, and what the movements would be like," Shiva said. "After that, it was like they forgot or didn’t care we were there."
It took about three months to film the documentary.
"We started filming in February and the dance was in April," Shiva said. "But by the time I got to the community in Ohio, I had been researching for a year and a half.
"I initially set out to make the film about them and about these kids being on the spectrum, but then I fell in love with these three girls," she said. "I wanted to watch them grow up and follow that process, and I wanted someone who watches the film, get that same experience that I had, just being with them."
Shiva is thrilled that "How to Dance in Ohio" was accepted in the U.S. Documentary competition at Sundance.
"It’s the best thing that could have happened to the film and I’m so overjoyed," she said. "What better place is there to show the movie, but at Sundance?"
Shiva is also honored the film rights were acquired by HBO.
"A domestic broadcast on HBO will ensure that this film reaches the widest possible audience throughout the country and I am excited to be working with them to do that," she said. "This is a film not only for the many whose lives are touched in some way by autism, but also for anyone who can relate to the fraught experience of growing up and trying to understand adulthood."
"How to Dance in Ohio" will continue screenings at The MARC on Thursday, Jan. 29, at 8:30 p.m., the Holiday Village Cinema 2 on Friday, Jan. 30, at 3:15 p.m. and the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Jan. 31, at 12:30 p.m. For more information visit http://www.sundance.org.