STRIKE A POSE - Q&A with the directors
Saturday 11 February 2017, by
"1990, seven young dancers joined pop star Madonna on her most controversial world tour. Wild, talented and barely twenty, the dancers set out on the trip of a lifetime. Their journey was captured in Truth or Dare, one of the highest-grossing documentaries ever."
25 years after the tour, Strike a Pose, currently screening at Dochouse in London, finds out the journey the dancers set on, the issues that that the tour raised and how it altered their lives. We spoke to directors Ester Gould & Reijer Zwaan:
What were the initial steps of the project? Did you know a little bit about what had happened to the dancers? Or did you set out to find that out?
Reijer was 11 years old when he first saw Truth Or Dare in a film theatre in Amsterdam. I was fascinated by the film, by that larger-than-life world where everything seemed possible. It also was my first encounter with gay culture. As the years passed, I couldn’t help but ask myself what might have happened to the young dancers who had made such an impact.
We felt an absolute fascination for this special group of characters as well as a yearning for the eccentricity and dare that was celebrated in the early nineties. When we started looking for the dancers online, we found that many many people were still talking about them, more than 20 years after Truth or Dare. The fact that so many people had been touched by them and the message of Express Yourself strengthened us in the believe we wanted to make this film.
Before we reached out to the dancers, we started looking for them online. So we knew bits and pieces of their stories, but definitely not much. We had read about the fact that Gabriel had passed away only five years after the end of the tour, that he had died of AIDS. We knew that Jose & Luis had made a record - with Madonna singing background vocals. And we found a lot of gossipy stuff about the lawsuit against Madonna that was filed by three of the dancers. Only when we met them months later, after reaching out, we learned their real stories and we got to see how impressive they all still are. Then we knew for sure that this was going to be a feature documentary film.
How did you approach them? Where they all happy to get on board?
We wrote them all long, carefully written letters in which we explained that we wanted to make a documentary film about them, about their lives during and after the tour and film. Some were very willing to meet with us and hear more about our film idea, and we were able to convince them that this would really be about them. Others, especially Jose and Luis (the original voguers from the New York House Ballroom scene who worked with Madonna after the tour was over as well) were very hesitant at first. All of them were asked about Madonna for 25 years and they were done - even though it has been such an important part of their lives. But in the end, they were ready to tell their stories and really opened up, they trusted us.
Sue Trupin, Gabriel’s mother also decided that she wanted to tell Gabriel’s story on his behalf. The openness and vulnerability of the dancers and Sue has been a very impressive thing to see and we believe it’s what makes their stories very relatable in the end - they’re very human stories about pride, loss, love and overcoming shame.
There is next to no intervention on your part as directors. Could you explain your artistic choice? How much leeway did the dancers have to talk about their experiences?
Our most important artistic choice was a narrative one: we wanted to focus on the paradox that these seven male dancers made a lasting impact on pop and gay culture - they inspired an entire generation to ‘Express Yourself’ - but at the same time it wasn’t so easy for them to accept nor express themselves in their personal lives - both during and after the tour. This premise might sound obvious, but with seven main characters and therefore seven life stories there are many truths and perspectives to focus on. Another focus - from the very beginning - was dance as a language and as a force that has kept these men going in both good and hard times.
The dancers are verbally strong but we wanted to focus on their movement so there are several scenes that tell part of the story in dance. For example when we see Carlton dancing - “crumbling into nothingness” - in his living room. Carlton had told us about this really dark period in his life, during which he hardly left the house because his self-esteem had been shattered. Obviously, we had missed this chapter in his life and rather than asking him to talk about it, we asked him to recall that period by dancing it. So, while interviews are important in this film, so are these dance scenes. During our research and the filming, we allowed all of the dancers to talk extensively about what the tour had meant, but also about their life stories. At the same time, we had to merge those life stories into one larger narrative, which was our personal perspective: it’s one thing to be loud and proud on a stage in your early twenties, it’s something else to be true to yourself while life happens.
Could you tell us a bit more about your background as filmmakers and what you intend to do next?
Reijer - This is my first film. I’ve been working as a journalist for Dutch public television for more than 10 years, for a current affairs programme called Newshour. So I’m used to telling stories and editing reports, but I had never done anything like this. But I was lucky enough to be able to this together with Ester.
Ester - I started out as a researcher for documentaries, and worked a lot with acclaimed filmmaker Heddy Honigmann. About ten years ago I began directing my own documentaires, including shorts, children’s documentaries and feature lengths. Strike a Pose is my third feature-length documentary after Shout (2010) and A Strange Love Affair with Ego (2015) which won the award for best Dutch documentary at IDFA 2015 and a special mention as Best Female Directed Documentary. I’ve just finished a six-part series for Dutch public television called Debt Society for which I and co-director Sarah Sylbing were recently rewarded as Journalists of The Year in the Netherlands. I’m currently taking a break after three years of non-stop directing but slowly but surely working on new ideas.
What were you interested in exploring in this film and what would you like the audience to take from it?
Hopefully the audience is inspired to dare to be yourself. If that has been hard for these seven striking characters, it only proves how hard it is for all of us. The secrets and self-doubt are nobody’s fault because it’s part of human nature: deep down, we all want to belong. But we hope the film shows people that overcoming shame is worth it, that you can survive hard times and come out stronger. At the same time, it’s a film about time and aging. Embracing reality - when you’re no longer young, wild and fearless - is something we all have to do.
Strike a Pose is on at Dochouse until 16 February.