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Laura Kaehr • Director of Becoming Giulia

"Dance was the language I grew up with"


- The director of the documentary on Giulia Tonelli, prima ballerina at the Zurich Opera, doesn’t need words to talk to her audience

Laura Kaehr • Director of Becoming Giulia
(© Maya & Daniele)

In her documentary Becoming Giulia [+see also:
film review
interview: Laura Kaehr
film profile
, which has won the Audience Award at the Zurich Film Festival, Laura Kaehr follows Giulia Tonelli, principal dancer at the Zurich Opera House. Giulia has recently given birth, so every move is a struggle. But life without dance isn’t an option. 

Cineuropa: There is no voiceover here, no introductions. You just enter this world with her.
Laura Kaehr:
This came early on in the editing phase. We knew she was a strong character and that we captured all these emotional highs and lows. We didn’t need explanations. I think that documentaries which allow you to immerse yourself in the film are more powerful than the ones with the “talking heads” and all these different voices. If you plan to clarify everything with a voiceover, you don’t need to establish such an intimate connection with your protagonist. I wanted to challenge myself this way.

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Giulia also tells her story through dance. You see she is in pain or struggling sometimes. She doesn’t have to say it aloud.
I also come from dance, so for me, dance is a narrative tool. That was the language I grew up with. I also grew up in “film cities,” between Locarno and Cannes, so I saw this marriage between dance and cinema and how these two art forms can interact. 

I paid attention to how I was filming her dance. I knew the movements so I could anticipate them, I knew where I could go. I encouraged my cinematographers [Felix von Muralt, Stéphane Kuthy] to do the same, because this way, we could all dance together. Giulia was so honest in front of the camera; you can read her very well. When something was not going right, her whole body expressed it. 

You show dancers complain to each other, exchanges in the corridors. Were they suspicious at first?
I think the trust came from the fact that they knew I was a dancer. I was not looking for your usual clichés, I wasn’t after any drama, I wasn’t looking at what they were eating. It was to show it’s a real job: you have scheduling problems and you deal with your colleagues. 

When you shoot a documentary, every day is different. You are constantly solving conflicts and communicating. You develop this superhuman empathy. Once, I wanted to show Giulia at her house, something simple. I showed up and she was crying. You never know! But it ended up being one of the strongest scenes in the film. 

The story itself is as universal as they get: a woman becoming a mother and fighting for her career. What made you interested in her struggle?
We weren’t close friends when we started the film. We would meet for a coffee twice a year and I would always go see her dance at the Zurich Opera House. She is the most amazing artist they have. One day, she told me she gave birth to a baby boy and she was about to go back. It was almost as if this story wanted to be told. She felt it too. If I had known what was coming, how hard this shoot was going to be, I would have been a little less enthusiastic!

Do you think not knowing her very well made the process easier?
A lot of my Swiss colleagues have made beautiful films about family members. I remember thinking: “Gosh. Why am I not making a film about my mum?” It was hard sometimes, because I am an intense person. I wanted to stay at her house for 7 hours straight. She recognised that drive, but she is also a new mum and, well, has a life. It was like building a relationship from scratch, there was tension and fights. Also, she never had a day off! Your career lasts 20 years – I forgot how intense it is. She admits that she met her husband when she was injured. 

You also capture the moment when she is thinking about what’s next, especially when it comes to her roles. She is done playing innocent girls.
That’s one of the reasons I wanted to tell this story. Giulia is a rare a kind of artist — she really goes into the emotional aspect of her performances. When I was filming, there wasn’t a big variety to her roles: Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker. It was beautiful when she met [British choreographer] Cathy Marston, who wants to embrace narratives that don’t revolve around little girls becoming women. She is interested in other stories: Mrs. Robinson, The Cellist. When they meet, it’s a revelation. 

This meeting seems to imply it’s time for a revolution in ballet.
I would love to see a change in the way female characters are portrayed. I understand they were written at a certain time, but we haven’t seen that much progress. It’s time for something to change and I think female choreographers will be the ones driving it. 

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