Hot Docs 2020: Cara Holmes on a Dance of Defiance with “Welcome to a Bright White Limbo”

“I’m not religious or atheist, I’ve got my dancing instead,” Oona Doherty can be heard saying in “Welcome to a Bright White Limbo,” in which her unique brand of spirituality turns the streets of Belfast into her cathedral. After moving around as a kid from London with stops in Berlin in New York before settling in Northern Ireland, the choreographer no longer sees places with demarcations when director Cara Holmes finds her, bursting from the trunk of a car and making her way around the city propelled by her own perpetual motion for the duration of the 11-minute short, which itself blurs the lines between a dance film and a biography where actions really do speak as loudly as words.

Inspired by Doherty’s performance piece “Hope Hunt” where the artist expressed the pent-up frustration of living in the working class milieu in explosive physical contortions, Holmes observes her seeking out ways to transcend it, from taking on the attributes of a man to turn the aggressive into the vulnerable and causing one to reconsider the mundane when so much beauty is contained in how she engages with barren ballrooms and working men’s club she finds that have seen better days. For someone who admits, “collage is a good way to show how my brain works — it’s not quite linear,” the film brilliantly distills Doherty’s sprawling imagination into a fluid trip through her mind, as if she can bend time and space towards her will as she moves through the city.

Although “Welcome to a Bright White Limbo” had been set to bow in North America at the Tribeca Film Festival, the coronavirus prevented a proper premiere — though it could hardly deny the film a Special Jury Prize for Best Documentary Short — and now it will be made available to Ontario audiences virtually that had been making plans to see it at Hot Docs. Shortly before the online edition of the festival begins, Holmes was kind enough to answer some questions via e-mail about the special film, expanding on the cinematic possibilities of Doherty’s work from bringing it from the stage to the screen and bringing collaborators onto the same creative wavelength.

How did this project come about?

I saw Oona perform her solo show “Hope Hunt” at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2016. A friend of mine had gone to see it twice and loved it so much that she brought all her friends along. We also went to Belfast to see the show. A fan from the start. What I was really interested in was the performance and gender side of things — how did a female dancer embody a young man and why? Pretty much straight after watching the show, I went online to find out more about Oona and came across her website. I remember seeing that she was open to collaborations, so we met for a coffee and a chat and that was it. I was intrigued by how she told a story. Zlata Filipovic was the obvious choice to produce this film. She’s a documentary producer in Ireland and has produced 4-5 dance films, which is quite the thing, and Screen Ireland then came on board and supported the making of the short as part of their Real Shorts funding scheme.

Was it much of an adaptation of “Hope Hunt”? From what I understand, it has a similar opening with a car.

Yes, the car was the opening we wanted from the start. I wanted the audience to experience the “joyride” through the streets of Belfast, albeit briefly, and getting that opening sequence right was very important — the shock element – I wanted to disorientate! But my main ambition for the film was to bring the dance out of the theatre space and into the real world that the characters in the show inhabit — Belfast suburbs, housing estates, flats and working men’s clubs. I wanted to combine Oona’s own personal experience and segments/parts of the “Hope Hunt” show. I wanted these two elements to be distinct.

How did you collaborate on figuring out the right locations to shoot in?

I did a lot of driving around Belfast to find the right locations — a lot of driving, and myself and Oona talked about the venues and places that stood out to her. However, we did stumble into a few locations too – the ballroom and working men’s clubs. I have to thank Oona and the crew for just going for it and enjoying the adventure of it. This film is firmly set in a modern, contemporary Northern Ireland, specifically Bangor and Belfast, [and] plays with dichotomies, a sense of home, (posh Bangor vs gritty Belfast), gender (male vs female), dance and art, (movement vs words), how to be in the world (tough vs soft). She draws influence from the everyday and the injustices of class divide. Her work challenges these stereotypes.

I was quite taken with the shot selection and how the film moves from being impossibly close and impossibly far away. What was it like figuring out how you wanted to relate to Oona with the camera?

I really like doing that in my films in general. I was very lucky to have cinematographer Luca Truffarelli, one of Oona’s longtime collaborators, shoot the film. I needed the attention to detail that I knew he would bring and I wanted to see her muscles moving, the beads of sweat from the dance, the fierceness! But also [to show] the delicacy of the dance and Oona as a person. The wide shots moving to macro closeups was a way for me and the audience to get closer and closer to the subject. I wanted the film to explore the inner workings of Oona’s mind and body, [so] we combined personal interview and dance performance and a lot of the wider shots would be mainly segments from the show and the macro shots were to get closer to Oona as a person. We explore the creative nature of her life and her soul. Oona has devoted most of her life to dance and art [and she] is an observer by nature and this is reflected in her work, so I wanted the film to get closer to observe Oona and her process, not only as a dancer but as a thinker and creator.

Did the voiceover come from a standard interview or did you know what material you had shot by the time you recorded it? Could you draw on elements from “Hope Hunt”?

The voiceover came from many hours of recording interviews with Oona both on and off screen – we talked about family, friends, collaborators, and dance, but in the end we were limited to 10 to 11 minutes. “Hope Hunt” isn’t necessarily biographical, but there are certainly elements in there that Oona has drawn from her own life and experiences, [and] the realities of the people she’s observing. Muscle memory was something Oona always talked about and how our parents and grandparents pass down this energy and how this energy manifests itself [as well as] our learned behaviors or genetic influences in behavior — sometimes we are born into roles and how hard it can be to break out of this. For me, the film is all about connection and breaking down barriers [and] how we, as human beings, relate to each other, and I wanted to build that connection between dance and a film audience as well as connecting with Oona as a protagonist.

You see Oona engage with the music so much in the film — did you have most of it in place before shooting?

Myself and the film’s editor Mick Mahon built an initial temp sound bed including some sound design. I knew that sound design was going to play a big part in creating and separating out the two worlds — dance show / personal documentary, and I also wanted to work with some of the music used in the original “Hope Hunt” show too, but we could only afford the performance of the end track, Allegri’s “Miserere Mei, Deus.”

I knew I wanted to work with Die Hexen from early on, so wanted to give her as many references as possible and she replicated some of what we did, but brought the sound design and score to a whole new level. Even from her first pass, it really worked. She’s very intuitive. She’s also from Belfast and knows that world, so it made sense. It was also important to give this [creative] stage quite a bit of time and to allow DH to go off and build in those layers. Very simple and faint things like an ice cream truck when Oona is training/running along the coast — it’s all very subtle but I think it makes a massive impact.

Was there anything during the process that happened that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Overall, the structure or content didn’t change too much from my initial treatment, but I learned a lot from making the film, mainly about Oona’s life as a creative and what it means to fully immerse yourself in the dance world. I poured over every frame in the film and Oona and the crew gave so much, so that’s something I’ll never forget. I wanted to be bold in my approach and not confine myself to a typical narrative construct, so I had no idea how the film would be received. Looking back it was a perfect storm of creativity and willingness from everyone on the crew to just go for it.

I was so happy to hear that you were able to go to at least one film festival physically with this – what was the premiere like in Dublin?

A lot of fun! Our premiere was the Cork International Film Festival in November 2019. Our screening in Dublin was sold out, the film was in a program of shorts and we were showing with other brilliant talented directors/teams. We won two awards in Dublin, best Irish short and I also got a Discovery Award which was a surprise to say the least. I didn’t think at the time that it would be the last time we would see the film on a big screen for a while, we were all set to head to Tribeca [but] getting into festivals like Hot Docs, Tribeca and Sheffield is a docmakers dream. Receiving a Special Mention at Tribeca was and still is quite surreal, I must admit.

“Welcome to a Bright White Limbo” will premiere at Hot Docs as part of World Showcase Shorts Program 2 and will be available to Ontario audiences from May 28th through June 6th.

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