NYWIFT at DOC NYC: In Conversation with Filmmaker Dawn Porter

By Katie Chambers 

NYWIFT Member Dawn Porter’s Cirque du Soleil: Without a Net offers a never-before-seen look behind the curtain of the world-famous circus extravaganza, with an approach that is equally intimate and epic in scale. When Cirque du Soleil moves to reboot its flagship production, O, more than a year after an abrupt global shutdown, both performers and crew members face uncertainty as they work to return to their world-class standards in time for the (re)opening night curtain in Las Vegas. Porter captures the struggles and triumphs of the individuals and the production itself they face the unprecedented crisis of COVID-19.

Award-winning, acclaimed filmmaker Dawn Porter has emerged in the entertainment industry as a leader in the art of storytelling; directing and producing critically acclaimed projects that have impacted generations of people from all walks of life. As a two-time Sundance film festival director, Porter’s work has been featured on HBO, Netflix, CNN, PBS, MSNBC, MTV Films, and other platforms. She has been recognized with career achievement awards from the Hamptons and Mill Valley Film Festivals, is the recipient of the 2022 Critics Choice Documentary Awards “Impact Award,” and an honoree at the 2022 Gracies Leadership Awards.

Cirque du Soleil: Without a Net had its world premiere as a Centerpiece film at the 2022 DOC NYC Festival. Porter sat down with us to discuss her unique approach to this story, and how these high-flying artists can offer unique insight into our post-pandemic world.


NYWIFT Member Dawn Porter (Photo Credit: Kevin Scanlon)


Congratulations on your DOC NYC world premiere screening for Cirque du Soleil: Without a Net! What does inclusion in the festival mean to you?

Thank you! I was honored when we heard that the film would be included in DOC NYC. I’ve been part of the documentary film community for more than 12 years now, and watching the field transform from fairly niche to mainstream has been such a thrill. Screening alongside so many other meaningful and admirable films is something for which I’m very grateful.

I made Cirque du Soleil: Without a Net with the intention that it would debut on the big screen. A majority of the film takes place inside a stunning, opulent theater, and we recorded hours of backstage audio between the crew. I wanted to transport our viewers into that space in a way that felt immersive, and it was exhilarating to see that vision come to life.

The empty theater where “O” takes place at The Bellagio in Las Vegas (photo credit: Cirque du Soleil)


How did this project come about? Were you already familiar with Cirque du Soleil before making the film? It is such an institution now…

I signed on to direct this film a year into the pandemic at a time when I was absolutely exhausted by the seemingly endless cycle of bad news. I was interested in taking a break and focusing on something else. I’ve always been fascinated by the artistry at Cirque du Soleil, and was very curious about the artists and what their lives entailed.


Still from Cirque du Soleil: Without a Net


Watching the production go on hold due to the pandemic and then return to new life, with layoffs, visa issues, safety issues, etc., this is as much a story about workers in 2020 and beyond as it is about artists and athletes. How did you strike that balance as a director, bringing both elements to the forefront?

That balance is part of what interested me in this story. At first glance, the life of an artist at Cirque du Soleil might not seem incredibly relatable. I hadn’t met anyone with an aerial hoop in their living room until meeting one of our subjects, Emma Garrovillo. But the pandemic was a time of significant hardship and isolation for everyone, including Cirque employees. The story of their comeback is specific to their craft, but it relates to all of us figuring out how we’re picking up the pieces as we emerge from the pandemic.


Still from Cirque du Soleil: Without a Net


The film was absolutely riveting, capturing the beauty, the danger, the artistry, and the athleticism of the production. I’d love to hear more about your collaboration with the cinematographers in nabbing some of those shots.

We had two incredible cinematographers on this film – Chris Hilleke and Bryant Fisher. I’ve worked with both of them before and have enormous trust in each of them and respect for their craft. We wanted to strike a balance between capturing the grandeur and magnificence of the space, while also filming our subjects in a way that felt intimate and emotional.

One example of this is a scene where one of our subjects ends up in tears after a rehearsal doesn’t go as planned. The shots of the rehearsal are wide and absolutely stunning, highlighting the athleticism involved with the artist and coaches. But the emotional aftermath is much tighter while remaining unobtrusive – allowing our subject to work through her emotions as she grapples with what’s next for her routine.


Production Still from “O” (Photo Credit: Cirque du Soleil)


What was your biggest challenge in making the film? And your favorite moment?

We embedded our crew backstage for two months and became absolutely enthralled with what goes into making O, the show we focused on in the film. We filmed with multiple artists and across different departments, as well as underwater, in the catwalks, and in the training rooms. We were very pleased with the results and being able to showcase a 360 degree take on the show, but it meant that we returned with hundreds of hours of footage. When it came to post-production, it was definitely a challenge to go through all of the footage in search of the best moments.

As for my favorite moment, it was on opening night. I don’t want to give too much away, but one of our subjects had some ups and downs during rehearsals and was working like crazy to get ready for the premiere. When I saw her perform on opening night and nail her trick, I cried.


Production still from “O” (photo credit: Cirque du Soleil)


Yes, seeing her ultimate success was so powerful. What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

We filmed this documentary at a time of incredible division in our country. There were and remain stark differences of opinions about how the pandemic was handled. At the same time, I was fascinated by how the cast and crew of O worked with each other. So much of the show is done by hand. The synchronized swimmers can’t do their jobs if divers don’t give them oxygen underwater. The trapeze artist can’t fly through the air if someone doesn’t hold her safety line in the catwalk. The bateau artists literally hold each other’s hands as they perform complicated feats of acrobatics. To me, O represents the best of what happens when people work together, despite whatever differences they may have. I hope this film can help remind us all how magical it can be when we come together.

Underwater cast and crew of “O” (photo credit: Cirque du Soleil)


I do also want to mention you are Executive Producer of another film at DOC NYC, Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee’s powerful documentary Aftershock, about Black maternal deaths in the U.S., which we covered when it was at Sundance. Briefly, for those who might not have seen Aftershock yet: what do you want them to know about it and why is it vital for audiences to take it in?

Aftershock is a humanizing look at the appalling Black maternal mortality crisis in America. The film focuses on the vibrant lives of two Black women who died from treatable complications after giving birth and documents the aftermath as their husbands and families figure out how to move forward. It’s absolutely vital viewing for anyone who agrees this crisis is unacceptable and is searching for a greater understanding of how we can create systemic change.

Shawnee Benton Gibson and Bruce McIntyre appear in Aftershock by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kerwin Devonish.)


What’s next for you?

I’m currently finishing up two series that I’m excited to see come out next year. The first is a documentary series for Showtime Networks about the Supreme Court. And the second is a six-part series on the continuation of the historic civil rights documentary series Eyes on the Prize for HBO.


Learn more about Dawn Porter’s work at www.trilogy-films.com, and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @DawnPorter.


Katie Chambers

Katie Chambers Katie Chambers is the Senior Director of Community & Public Relations at New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT). She also serves as the Communications Chair of the New Jersey State Federation of Women's Clubs and is a freelance writer, copyeditor, and digital marketing strategist. Follow her @KatieGChambers.

View all posts by Katie Chambers

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