As she prepares for the film's New York theatrical release this weekend, Finzi shares her thoughts on the long process of making the film—her first feature—and its triumphant debut in the favelas of Rio.
Only When I Dance is the story of two young people, Irlan and Isabela, trying to realize their dreams against all odds and dance their way out of the favelas of Rio. It’s a story of coming of age and what you must sacrifice to realize your ambition.
I’ll make no bones about it: Only When I Dance was a delightful documentary to work on. Working with two wonderful central characters, we travelled a hugely emotional and inspiring journey together. Irlan and Isabela are not only great dancers but delightful young people who were so generous as we filmed for over a year, capturing the pivotal moments in their lives. The result was a truly nourishing narrative arc, which you rarely encounter as a filmmaker.
Of course Rio was really the third character, a stunning backdrop to the documentary. Yet because so many fantastic films have come out of Brazil in the last few years, I was anxious not to fall into filmic clichés—instead, to try and present a fresh and honest portrait of this city, and of two working class families determined to fight for a better life.
The team worked really hard to "cast" the best possible characters, choosing two young people genuinely facing raw challenge and on the cusp of real change. And while it took three long years of research before we started filming, it was worth the wait. With Irlan and Isabela we could explore truly rich themes of race, class and of course, great dance—in all, a wonderful set of ingredients to work with.
Rio, while a wonderful place to work in, was also challenging as a filming environment. You are walking around in what is already a dangerous city with a lot of very expensive equipment, so it takes a fair amount of concentration just to keep the crew and kit safe, let alone focus on what is going on in the film. On top of that we were traveling in and out of the favelas, some of the most lawless communities on earth. However, with a painstaking amount of negotiation, we did manage to get in and out for over twelve months without encountering real trouble.
It was then one of our proudest moments—on a hot and humid night last autumn—when we took the finished film back to that very same community. Together we built a makeshift cinema in the back of a church inside the favela and hosted the Brazilian premiere for all of Irlan’s friends and family. They watched in wide-eyed amazement at what their son had achieved, and at the end of the night there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
So it was an extraordinary year of filming and editing before we began a second year of sharing the movie in theatres and festivals all over the world. It sounds like fun, but the truth is it is never straightforward finishing a film. You stop work because at some point you run out of time and money and you have to call it a day. As a result, there are some shots that make you squirm, but I am happy to say there are still scenes in this film that make me laugh out loud.
For me, making Only When I Dance was a real lesson in trusting my instincts… in being patient and waiting for just the right time to film scenes, to have difficult conversations. But also holding onto those shots that I’d dreamed of. The opening sequence, with Irlan dancing on the roof in Rio, I had sketched out a year before I shot it, and it was absolutely the right thing to open the film with.
We had such a wonderful journey with Irlan and Isabela, I only hope the film is an inspiration to audiences everywhere. If these kids living in such a tough part of Rio can dare to dream, to be so ambitious, then surely we all can.