Within our collective, often misinformed, consciousness, Brazil is generally associated with samba, caipirinhas, futebol, and the tropical debauchery of its carnivals – ballet doesn’t seem to be high on the list of things that come to mind when thinking of the South American nation, but it should. São Paulo, the bustling metropolis that will soon host the second Olympic Games ever to take place in Latin America, is home to the only school in the world entirely devoted to teaching ballet to visually impaired youth, the Fernanda Bianchini Ballet Association for the Blind.
Interestingly enough, Fernanda Bianchini, the woman behind this fascinating idea and who is not blind herself did not originally set out to work with children in these circumstances, but found herself in a position to prove to the world that the graceful and elegant movements of ballet are not out of reach for those who can’t see. Part of this story was first documented in the 2013 short film Looking at the Stars by director Alexandre Peralta, which went on to win a Student Academy Award. Now almost a decade after Peralta first became aware of the school’s existence, his new feature-length documentary also titled Looking at the Stars aims to expand the enticing narrative by examining the inception of this unique learning facility and following two distinct dancers on their personal odysseys. After a successful Kickstarter campaign raised over $30,000 for the production, the feature had its World Premiere this past weekend at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Peralta recalls that while attending college in São Paulo in the mid 2000s he came across Fernanda’s school but didn’t pursue any direct contact until years later, after he had honed his filmmaking skills. “There is something about us Brazilians; we don’t over think, we just do it,” he said. “Fernanda had never worked with blind kids before. She was not a teacher, but she found what she wanted to do and that’s what she’s been doing for the past 20 years.” Ultimately, Fernanda became the driving force for a project that many considered impossible given that dance, and ballet specifically, is a very much a visual art form.
Although Fernanda is featured in the doc as the catalyst for this improbable dream, Peralta chose to focus his attention on the dancers who have shattered expectations through ballet. One of them, Geyza, is by far the most achieved of the pack. “When I went to the school for the first time I didn’t watch a class or anything. I inquired with the secretary because I wanted to know a little bit more about the classes, the times, when they teach, how they teach,” Fernando confided. “Then she mentioned Geyza. She said: ‘Geyza is one of our prima ballerinas, and every time there is someone here from the news or people from schools doing projects they always talk to Geyza.'” From the moment he came in contact with her, Alexandre was drawn to her and decide to learn more about her story. In the film we follow her as she tries to balance marriage and motherhood with her passion for the art form.
To counterbalance the more adult challenges that Geyza faces, the filmmakers decided to also center his gaze on a younger member of the group, a blind teenage girl named Thalia. “The idea of following her came because Geyza is sure of herself at this point in her life. She is more prepared, she is a ballerina, she is ready, and it was about finding someone that is now going through something that she went through or the challenges that she had, which are different from the ones that she is having now.” Besides trying to navigate a world that is not designed for people like her, Thalia also discuses her experiences with bullies, her interest in writing fictional stories that reflect who she is, and how dance has become an outlet for some of the frustration and negativity she encounters.
“There is something about us Brazilians; we don’t over think, we just do it.”
“I’m a little afraid of the word inspiring because it puts them on a different level, like they are different people. One of the main things we wanted to do was to humanize them and at the same time make a movie that’s emotional because of what happens in their lives, but not like a cheesy self-help movie,” explains Peralta, who spent three years following these and other blind ballerinas to construct the film. His desire to not highlight the differences but the similarities between his subjects and the rest of the world is evident in several segments where the protagonists are seen carrying out mundane activities.
“Those are my favorite moments, like a moment with Thalia where she is just having a Coke. That’s important, because I think that’s how we relate,” Peralta elaborated. “When you see them dancing you think, ‘Oh that’s impressive,’ but they also can do everything that all of us can do. Of course there are things that are more challenging, but they just have to find different ways of doing those. The whole idea was not to treat them as examples, but like real people by demystifying whatever we have in our minds.”
Peralta noted that preconceived notions of what someone can or can’t do are dangerous, but he also admitted that he wasn’t sure how to connect with the talented performers at first,.“It’s a mix between people not knowing what to do and underestimating — that’s the mentality. I had a lot of prejudices too in a way, I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know the words that were proper to use. Can I use the word see? Or can I say, ‘did you watch that?’ What I learned was that we can say whatever we say normally with them. They have favorite colors. They are not different from us. People just don’t know how to approach them.” Not getting caught up in the details that separate us is what the filmmaker believes is the ideal way to interact with those with different capabilities.
Paired with everyday occurrences and their arduous training, Peralta included highly stylized sequences in which he placed either Geyza or Thalia in an urban environment in full ballerina attire to perform their best routines. “Another way to highlight the humanity was showing their work. Clearly those are the moments that were actually planned. Everything else was very organic. Those were the moments to show how they feel when they dance and a way to show a journey through dance and what dance means.” In these specific set pieces the director could control what happened in the scene, but he reassured us that for the most part he tried to keep his influence to a minimum, “They had the freedom to feel what they wanted to feel in front of the camera. The less I tried to control the more we were getting. Hopefully they feel like we portrayed a real part of who they are.”
With international star of Brazilian descent Camilla Belle now on board as executive producer of the film, Peralta hopes to reach a wider audience with his delicate look at the shining stars that grace his film. When asked about the significance of the phrase that gives name to this story, a profoundly moved Peralta replied, “The title came from something that Fernanda usually says to teach. That’s how she teaches the younger kids. It’s a beautiful metaphor, it’s not about looking but about what you are aiming for, what you want to do, and reaching what you want to reach. It’s about something beyond physically seeing. It’s about being what you can be.”
Looking at the Stars screens Friday, February 3, 2017 at 6:15pm in New York during the Dance on Camera Festival. Buy tickets here.