Hot Docs 2016: Interview with the directors of Strike a Pose
Of the films I’m reviewing at Hot Docs 2016, Strike a Pose has been my top pick from the moment I saw it. It had an emotional resonance to it that I immediately connected with. It tells the incredible story of the seven dancers selected for Madonna’s boundary-pushing 1990 Blond Ambition Tour, who were also featured in the accompanying documentary film Truth or Dare. Now, 25 years after this iconic moment in American cultural history, we learn how those experiences affected their lives and who they’ve become now. It’s an emotional story of self-expression, healing, and redemption.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with co-directors Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, and ask about the making of the film. I would like to thank them for taking the time to answer my questions.
The Roaming Life: Where did the idea come from for this film? Why did you want to tell this story?
Reijer: I saw Truth or Dare when I was 11 years old and was blown away by that film. Of course by the larger-than-life world of Madonna on tour, but also by these seven dancers who accompanied her and who were put front stage in the tour and film. For me it was the first time to be confronted with gay culture. Six of them gay, one straight, that was something that had never been seen in a film like that. They were so expressive, free and proud, they all made a huge impression. I saw the film many times after and at some point started to wonder where these powerful men would be now. Ester and I (we know each other through a friend) talked about it and when we started looking for them online, we immediately found out that we were definitely not the only ones wondering about them. The dancers have made such an impact on so many people’s lives and that’s when we knew we wanted to make a film about them. We got even more convinced when we met them and when we heard their very poignant and moving stories.
Ester: I also have strong memories of seeing ‘Truth or Dare’ as a teenager and loving its boldness. There was something liberating about Madonna and her dancers because they were all striking and yet each so different. They couldn’t be categorised or stereotyped. On one hand there was this personal nostalgia about the film and the early nineties and on the other hand this promise of a compelling story: what kind of men had these proud boys become? And what does it take to express yourself off stage, outside of the limelight?
TRL: What was the reception like from the dancers when you contacted them? Were they eager to take part or did they need some convincing?
Reijer: We reached out to all of them separately and sent them long, carefully written letters in which we explained that we would like to meet them to talk about a documentary film idea. Some were immediately open to meeting, a few were very reluctant. We tried to make it clear from the beginning that this would be a film about them, about their lives, that it would not be some gossipy thing about Madonna. They all have been approached for things like that many times over the last twenty-five years and were sort of done with that. Eventually they all felt that this would be different. That there was a story to tell that had a value in itself.
TRL: Did you attempt to contact Madonna about making an appearance in the film? Is she aware of the project?
Reijer: We wanted this to be about the dancers and we wanted them to feel completely free during filming as well. That’s why we have kept our film project secret for quite some time. We have of course thought about asking Madonna for an interview, but also felt that it’s not possible to include her just a little bit; it would have made it into a different film. We do think that Madonna is aware of the film and for some reason we feel she will be seeing it soon. We don’t know her, but somehow believe that the dancers are still important to her and that she might be touched by their stories.
TRL: Was there anything that surprised you during the making of the film? Was there anything that came out during the interviews with the dancers that was really unexpected?
Ester: I can’t say it was totally unexpected, but we were overwhelmed by how much sense our film idea made to the individual dancers at this specific moment in their lives. We already had this feeling that the timing was right to tell their story but we didn’t know beforehand to what extent they would feel the same way. A powerful element in our film is the fact that they were, perhaps subconsciously, looking for some kind of closure.
TRL: There is a strong message of hope, self expression and authenticity, and inner strength that comes from the men now that parallels their experiences during their tour with Madonna in 1990 and the Truth or Dare film. Was this a theme you actively sought to portray in the documentary or did this happen coincidentally as you conducted interviews and started piecing the film together?
Ester: We most definitely sought to portray these themes because the major premise of our film was the fact that these men were icons of pride and sexual freedom, while – in their own lives – it wasn’t so easy to express themselves. The inner strength is something the dancers bring to the screen because they simply have it. They were chosen by Madonna for their strength and fierceness, not only for their talent. But the theme of self-expression was always our main focus while making the film. The film was never meant to be a trip down memory lane; we wanted to explore those same themes 25 years later. During the entire process, we talked a lot about how it’s one thing to be outgoing and expressive on a stage and another to be true to yourself in your personal life.
TRL: In the early 1990s, the mark these men left on the LGBT community was profound. Along with the tragedy of the AIDS crisis, they helped turn the tide on the public’s perception of the gay community in a big way and push for greater acceptance. They also gave young gay people a sense of hope. What kind of impact do you hope your film has on or for the LGBT community?
Ester: We truly hope that our film, just like Truth or Dare, encourages people to dare to be themselves, whatever that means for each individual. Obviously gay rights and AIDS awareness and treatment have greatly improved since 1991. But that doesn’t mean that people no longer struggle with feelings of shame, with fears of being different and therefore left out. Self-acceptance might never be easy, because it’s in our human nature to want to belong.
Reijer: Like 25 years ago, visibility is still such an important thing. For people to see this film, to see these powerful yet vulnerable men, is hopefully inspiring again. Their stories tell us that there’s hope, no matter who you are and what you go through. Like Salim said during an interview: there’s always a way out.
TRL: By the end of the film, there was a powerful sense of healing and redemption. For some, it felt as though they were able to finally let go of painful secrets and memories they were holding onto from their days in the spotlight and move into a state of self acceptance of where they’ve ended up. Was this a cathartic experience for these men and those who participated in the film?
Ester: Yes, it has been a cathartic experience for the dancers and one that continues now that the film is out there. We are all overwhelmed by some of the responses we got during the Q&A’s, how people still come up to them, thanking them not only for being who they were in Truth or Dare but also for their courage to share their stories today. We like to think the film proves that it’s worthwhile to open up and that a lot of people really appreciate that kind of dare. Because it definitely took some guts to participate and also share their secrets and dark moments.
TRL: Since their reunion for this film, what have the men been up to? Have they continued to see each other? Do they have any plans to work together again?
Ester: The dancers all attended the world premiere in Berlin and the US premiere at Tribeca and love spending time together. Basically, they are very much back in touch. Of course they all have their own lives and work in different cities, but they are also working on a future project together.
Reijer: It is actually like a family when they’re together, even though it’s been such a long time. They are all so different but so very attached. Something special happens whenever they are together in one room.
Read our review of Strike A Pose
Read more of our Hot Docs Reviews