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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Welcome to NYWIFT, Aisha Amin! Aisha is an NYC-based writer and director. As a director, her work expands across narrative, documentary, and experimental forms to tell authentic stories built from real experiences. Her past film projects have explored and highlighted overlooked communities particularly in New York City, including formerly incarcerated mothers and communities struggling with the presence of gentrification in their neighborhoods. Amongst her directing, Aisha is an emerging screenwriting and was selected to participate in Cine Qua Non’s 2022 Screenwriting Lab. She is a 2022 recipient of NYFA’s Tomorrowland Grant and a 2021 recipient of the NYFA Women's Fund grant. She was a recipient of the 2019-2020 Sally Burns Shenkman Woman Filmmaker Fellowship at the Jacob Burns Film Center where she directed two short documentaries. She is also a recipient of The Shed's Open Call Fellowship where she expanded her film practice to installation art. Aisha spoke to us about her favorite styles of storytelling, the intersection of narrative and documentary, and her latest projects.READ MORE
Welcome to NYWIFT, Lorena R. Valenica! Lorena R. Valencia is a Mexican writer-director based in New York. Her directorial debut and MFA thesis film, Cuanacaquilitl (Dandelion), received the 2022 National Board of Review Student Award and is an Official Selection in several international film festivals, including the Morelia International Film Festival, the Atlanta Film Festival, the New York Latino Film Festival, and the NewFilmmakers Los Angeles Film Festival. Lorena is passionate about both narrative and documentary storytelling and is interested in addressing issues such as reproductive rights, identity, and belonging. Currently, she is directing Mi Ranchito, a documentary short film that explores resilience and love for the land, while she is developing her debut feature film, Mayahuel. Lorena spoke to us about inspiring empathy through storytelling, the overlap of narrative and documentary filmmaking, and her latest projects.READ MORE
NYWIFT Member Elivia Shaw is a producer and co-editor of the fascinating new documentary How to Have an American Baby, which just make its New York Premiere at DOC NYC 2023. The film is a a nuanced, behind-the-scenes look into the booming shadow economy catering to pregnant Chinese tourists who travel to America to give birth in order to obtain U.S. citizenship for their babies. Told through a series of observational vignettes, and with extraordinary access to the maternity hotel industry and their clients, the film outlines the invisible contours of the underground birth tourism industry and its unexpected actors in the U.S. and China, while probing deeply into the lives of several protagonists caught up in the phenomenon. What results is an intimate and compassionate portrait of women’s reproductive journeys, family, traditions, and capitalist desires. Shaw spoke to us about her collaboration with director Leslie Tai and the unique joys and challenges of the project.READ MORE
NYWIFT Member Emily Sheskin’s return to DOC NYC 2023 is particularly meaningful. In 2017, she attended the festival with her short film Girl Boxer, about a 10-year-old champion female boxer and her adoring father. Six years later, Sheskin returns with a feature-length film following the same family, now facing an entirely new set of challenges. In Jesszilla, New Jersey’s own Jesselyn Silva, a three-time national boxing champion, is on her way to superstardom, dominating the junior ranks at the age of 15. With her every step of the way is her father, Pedro, a single parent who helps her navigate coaches, training schedules, and the angst of teenage life. When a devastating diagnosis threatens the father-daughter tandem, the pair turn to each other to fight their greatest opponent yet: cancer. Director and Executive Producer Emily Sheskin spoke to us about her unique journey following this family.READ MORE