The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Lift
How did the project begin?
David Petersen: So it began at a dog park, where all projects have to start! I had another film that began at a dog park, so this is my second one. Richard Termine is a photographer at the New York Times, and had photographed Steven since he was a kid, I think, and the company for a long time. He had just seen a film I had made about an opera, the making of an opera, another kind of weird film, and he said, “oh David, I’ve got a great idea for a film. You know, these kids have been dancing and this little ballet company’s been around for 30, 40 years. You know, they’re giving these kids an opportunity to dance, and one of them… Has danced all over the world.” That turned out to be Steven. And of course the first thing that came out of my mind, being a realistic filmmaker, is, “where’s the money?” And he said, “well I don’t have any money. But, you know they are close… they’re just in Midtown.” So I said, “well, you know, maybe… I do have my own camera… I could go down there.” So I went down there. And eleven years later, here we are.
It’s as hard to get into shelters as it is to get into maximum security prisons
And Steven, what made you agree to be a part of this project?
Steven Melendez: I didn’t actually know what the project would be when we set out. I certainly didn’t know it was going to take 11 years! I think Diana [Byer], who green lit it for the organization, definitely didn’t know it was going to be 11 years. I think she had in her mind that it was a three week project. And at that time, you know, I was, I was still principally a dancer, and I saw myself that way. And at that time, I hadn’t yet actually come to terms with what it meant to use or take ownership of my past, of my upbringing. And so the journey that the film shows is equally my journey of learning that actually being known as the “homeless dancer” maybe isn’t such a weird thing. Now I can own that title a little bit differently than I did when I thought I was just trying to make a name for myself as a performer. But working with David was fantastic. I mean, he’s a real artist and one thing that he says often is to pay attention to what he’s filming. I don’t know how he says it, “pay attention to what you’re filming,” or, “listen to the works,” I don’t know, whatever it is. And how it manifests on my side was that I felt really comfortable being able to tell him, “you know, David, you’re pointing the camera the wrong way. Actually, you’ve missed the important part here.” And one of the things that I’m really proud of about this film is that it talks about two subjects, homelessness and ballet that I think a lot of people have stereotypes in their mind of, and it doesn’t show a single one of those stereotypes. Not all homeless people are drug addicts or prostitutes. And not all ballet dancers have bloody toes. There’s a lot more to both of those worlds than I think a lot of people recognize and realize.
It’s not terribly uncommon for a documentary to take a long time, but the project sounds like it changed in scope over time. Could you talk a little bit about that journey, and how the story developed?
DP: Well, it started with me and a camera and a student named Jean Claude, who I taught at CUNY and Staten Island. And then things shifted when Mary Recine got involved– and we’d worked at PBS for a while. She’s a producer, and she came on, and that’s how we really got into the shelter. It’s as hard to get into shelters as it is to get into maximum security prisons. And I’ve filmed at maximum security prisons, because they get bad press. They always get bad press. So it was difficult. But this particular shelter, the director knew Steven, and thought of him as a great star and a wonderful, brilliant kid, which obviously helped a lot!
Mary Recine: Yes, getting into the shelters was everything. Of course, we knew that immediately. We realized we didn’t want to make a film [solely focused on] a dance program. We wanted to make a film about a journey, and we wanted to watch and see what would happen with these kids. And we knew Steven was going to take us on that journey. But we knew the story was more than Steven, and more than New York Theatre Ballet. So that was essential. Getting into the shelter was… it was extraordinary to be able to do that. They just said, no, and no, and no. But we wouldn’t give up, and we just kept going until they let us in. We reached out to Misty Copeland [because of her belief in the accessibility of the arts] in 2017, and we were trying to get ITVS to help fund the project. And Misty kindly lent her name to it, and now she’s involved, as is [her producing partner] Leyla [Fayyaz] to amplify [that the arts should accessible to everyone]. And that’s so important. As Steven said, we’re looking at ballet through homelessness and homelessness through ballet. And not many people really respond to that when you try to pitch that. I’ve [worked on] films about Nina Simone and Joan Didion… and people want the famous people films, you know. This was very hard to, to make happen. But it was a true joy.
Steven was a character early on, but how did you find the other characters in the film?
DP: There were a lot of kids we followed that didn’t make it into the film. Steven touched on that too. We followed this little kid named Victor, who was very sweet, and he wasn’t at that time in a shelter. He was in public housing. He was home insecure. But he was… he didn’t come to the shelter. So we had to try to get into the shelter and that’s what took so long. Then we met Yolanssie and Sharia, but then there were other kids like Antalyna, who is a really interesting person. We met a bunch of kids. We followed some of their families. But, you know, they’re always dealing with so many struggles and challenges that they just, you know, like all kids in this program or any kind of program that offers opportunities, if you’ve got challenges, you just can’t keep it going. So then they fell off. But Steven, you mentioned one thing that I thought was great about what the 11 years of production did do for the film. Can you talk about that?
SM: Yes: you know, a lot of times people (both when trying to understand homelessness and ballet, actually), people try to understand all of the meaning of it through a snapshot. You know, you go to the performance when your child is performing, and you assume somehow that that tells you about everything that they have learned that year. But in fact, that’s the product of a long process, and the process takes a whole year, if not longer, maybe a whole lifetime, a whole childhood, and the value of what that child has learned is so much greater than three minutes that they’re doing their dance with their classmates on the stage for their parents and grandparents. And it’s the same, honestly, when we talk about homelessness: you look at families, you can go to a shelter for a day, and maybe on that day you will see something that is jarring, or shocking, or maybe you won’t… but if you go back again and again and again, what I think you realize is that the people in these situations are not actually so dissimilar to the rest of us. And I’m sure there are some statistics on this. Something like 20% of the people in New York State are homeless or home insecure. There’s 100,000 migrants now who are living homeless on the streets. I mean, I don’t know all the numbers, I’m not a statistician. But it’s really jarring and the reality is that there are a lot of people who, as a society, we like to think are not like us… because we don’t want to believe we could be like them. For example, my mother when we were in the shelter, worked at Mount Sinai Hospital. She left the shelter every day in a white lab coat. She was one of the five people in New York State who could run the particular machine that occupied her entire office. And that machine happened to be used for separating the red blood cells from the white blood cells from the plasma. And the work that she was doing was on AIDS research in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. And she lived with her two children in a homeless shelter for three years because the home that we had which was a beautiful, actually I guess you saw it in the film, it was a beautiful home. It had a yard, it had a garage, it had a basement, it had a sinky floor, it had an attic, it was a beautiful home. But the landlord just dropped dead one day, and that’s sad for him, but what ended up happening was his home went into probate, and the person who took it over said, “okay, you’ve got to get out,” and it was really shocking and you know, you think, y’all are in New York, so you know, what does it take to move with a drop of a hat? You have to have it in your savings account: First month, last month, moving fees, deposit, all that stuff. And you need to find an apartment that’s appropriate to have two children in, that’s near a public school that’s appropriate. And certainly all that doesn’t happen overnight. So in the very immediate term, you have to pay for a hotel that night and the rest of that week while you search, and you pay the broker’s fee. And meanwhile, you have a full time job and two kids. Right? It’s sort of an impossible situation. And once you slip a little bit down the hole, there’s no way to claw yourself back out. The infrastructure of the city just isn’t built for that. So, I think what a film like this, filmed over 11 years, highlights is actually how – will use this word and I’m sure it’s the wrong word and I can’t think of anything right now – how “normal” homeless people are. That the families are real families. Not every homeless family has a broken home, right? The fathers and the mothers are there and they all are loving and they care and they have the best interests at heart for their children to aspire and to be more successful in their future than the parents were. And I think it’s really easy to quite literally step over the homeless and allow them to live on the margins of society. And I think we allow that as a society because we refuse to recognize how similar we are actually to them. Or they are to us, or I am to myself from ten years ago. So, yes, the amount of time it took to make this film is important. It’s important to see these stories over time.