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Tribeca ’08: Dori Berinstein on “Gotta Dance”

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04292008_gottadance1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

[For complete coverage of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, check out IFC’s Tribeca page.]

It’s not unusual to see a filmmaker appear at two different festivals in two months, but usually, it’s with the same film. If Dori Berinstein is aiming to be the most popular documentarian around, she’s certainly not wasting time.

After wowing audiences at SXSW only a month ago with “Some Assembly Required,” a film that followed a kiddie competition to build a new toy, Berinstein is back at Tribeca with another crowd-pleaser, “Gotta Dance,” which goes to the opposite end of the age spectrum to chronicle the inaugural season of the Netsationals, a dance squad comprised of 60-year-olds and above. (It actually makes sense that their jersey numbers reflect their ages, which top out at 83.) While some of the dancers in “Gotta Dance” have a reverse legacy — their granddaughters are on the official Nets dance team — most are amateurs there to find fun and in some cases, themselves. If that sounds a lot like another senior citizen documentary making the rounds, trust us when we say these seniors follow the beat of a different drummer — or rather, Fat Joe.

Berinstein is no stranger to multitasking, considering that she also produces Broadway shows, a subject that became the inspiration for her first documentary, “Show Business.” Still, in the midst of her festival two-step, she found time to talk about the senior dancers that brought a smile to Walt Frazier’s face and her own complicated dance during the past year.

“Some Assembly Required” and “Gotta Dance” are opposites in many ways, but geographically, you had to cover so much ground on “Some Assembly Required” that it must’ve been kind of a relief to do “Gotta Dance,” which was all set in New Jersey.

Yes and no. It was more complicated than that because I did post-production on “Some Assembly Required” in Los Angeles. I really wasn’t expecting to be shooting “Gotta Dance.” It just came up, and I can explain how it happened, but I was much more West Coast when I was shooting this East Coast movie. I produce Broadway shows, and when we were launching production on “Gotta Dance,” I had to be in San Francisco with “Legally Blonde” [for preview performances], so I basically spent last spring on an airplane.

04292008_gottadance2.jpgWhy did you choose to make your life so crazy?

I didn’t think it was going to be a problem to do a film and a Broadway show at the same time. They both gestate for a long time and there was no way to avoid overlap there and that would’ve been fine. But in the back of my mind, I’d been thinking about wanting to do a film on the issue of aging. I didn’t want it to be talking heads, I didn’t want it to be in your face. I wanted it to be fun and celebratory and all about taking advantage of this time to chase your dreams. I had no plans to start a new project. No plans! But I read in the paper that the Nets were holding this audition for a senior dance team and I had to check it out. I went to the Nets headquarters and started to get to know these incredible people, and I had to tell their story.

Was it an interesting experience to go from being around young kids in “Some Assembly Required” to seniors?

It was fantastic. With both the kids and the seniors, everybody got comfortable with the cameras and we became just a familiar fly on the wall. I find that with kids and with the senior group, it’s easier than shooting with…let’s just say 18 to 55, who are more aware of the camera and are thinking about consequences. Both the kids and the seniors were completely lost in what they were doing and so passionate [it] that they forgot the camera was there.

During the film, the Netsationals get quite a bit of media attention. Did their growing celebrity pose a problem for you?

The only thing I noticed after they received so much attention from the press and made so many appearances is that they knew the drill. When I had to put a lav on them, they knew exactly what to do. [laughs] They were seasoned in that way. But I wasn’t there to capture their performing, I was there to capture their struggle, their adventure. I was with them when it was all happening for the first time — their joy and surprise, looking at themselves in newspapers and on TV. They were, overjoyed and it was exciting to capture that.

Between the dance performances, you let the camera roll on some interesting dinner conversations. How did those come about?

When we were with [the Netsationals] as a group, they were rehearsing, moving, very focused on what they were doing. The conversation was not about their lives and their families and their past, it was about how you do a swivel hip, how you do that kick. It didn’t give us the chance to see them in a broader way.

When they started to get comfortable with each other and started to go out together to meals and dinners, we asked to tag along because that was when the conversation became much more diverse. They started to talk about issues having to do with their lives and, in a bigger way, what they thought about what they were doing, that wouldn’t have happened while they were taking a break from their rehearsals. They enjoy each other so much — when Fanny [one of the older Netsationals] took them all line dancing, that was so much fun.

04292008_gottadance3.jpgThere are a lot of poignant moments in the film — one I found particularly moving was when Betty (a school teacher who becomes one of the dancers) is shopping at Macy’s and tells the other dancers how she never wanted to wear heels because she didn’t want to appear to be taller than her husband — did those moments catch you off guard?

I loved it. [laughs] I adore Betty so much because she wears her heart on her sleeve, her struggle to figure out who she is now in her sixties. I know people of that age who are going through the same thing, so I was thrilled to be able to capture that honesty, that everybody was so supportive of her as she was trying to figure out who she is. That camaraderie and the support that they all have for each other was a lovely thing to capture.

Do you have a particular favorite moment?

I would say that first performance, when they were so nervous and they have such self-doubt not only about their ability to remember everything and to put on a good show, but [because] they had no idea how the audience was going to react. It was thrilling to be there with them when they took a deep breath and went for it out on there on center court and the roof of the Meadowlands just went flying off. They were just embraced by the fans, and their joy afterwards, their exhilaration, was really exciting. We all had goosebumps.

So many documentaries are serious, and between “Some Assembly Required,” “Gotta Dance” and your first documentary “Show Business,” it seems like you’re rebelling against that. How did you decide to become the fun documentary filmmaker?

I’m glad that you feel they’re fun, but I think that, to me, what’s common about all of them is that they’re about people chasing their dreams and giving their dream everything they’ve got, throwing their complete passion into something, regardless of the risks. You have that in “Show Business,” you have that with the kids starting from a blank page and surprising themselves at what they’ve been able to create together as a team and then certainly with the seniors, most of them really in a million years never thought they’d be doing what they’re doing. They’re very much about chasing your dreams and being the best you can be — that that’s the common thread. I love stories like that. All these people that I’ve been able to capture really inspire me.

[Photos: “Gotta Dance,” Dramatic Forces, 2008]

For more on “Gotta Dance,” check out the official site here.

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