"Women rising up"
An interview with Amanda Lipitz, director of DOC10 Opening Night film Step
Winner of a Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Step chronicles the senior year of a girls’ high-school step dance team against the background of inner city Baltimore. As each of the students tries to become the first in their families to attend college, the girls strive to make their dancing a success against the backdrop of social unrest in the troubled city. Called “Hoop Dreams for the social media generation” (Variety) and “a great story of adversity, struggle and elevating achievement” (The Hollywood Reporter), Step was Sundance’s definitive crowdpleaser. A Broadway producer, director Amanda Lipitz brings to the story of the “Lethal Ladies” steppers a rousing sense of the challenges and triumphs of a classic musical. Below, Lipitz speaks to DOC10’s Anthony Kaufman about her relationships with the girls, the murder of Freddie Gray and whether Step is, or isn’t, a political film.
How long did you know these girls, and how do you think that helped make the film?
I had been making short films about education for 10 years, and met them when they were in the sixth grade. In the 9th grade, they started stepping, and begged me to start filming them. And I was blown away. When they were in the 10th grade and I decided I wanted to make a film, I knew them so well at that point. And I was this younger woman; I was not a teacher, and I was coming into their school with cameras, and I was the Broadway producer, so there was this glamour about me coming in and filming them. But they saw the films I was making for them and schools around the country. And they knew my work and the parents knew my work. They watched me have babies; they know my children; they knew my mother, and more than anything, they knew my heart was in the right place.
How did the murder of Freddie Gray change the making of the film? In what specific ways did it impact not only how you thought of the story, but also how you structured the storytelling?
It lit a fire, in me and in them. So it became not just about this school’s founding class and a step team and going to college; it was about a city, it was about America, it was about telling a positive story about an American city. After Freddie Gray’s death, I knew it was the frame for the story: it was the spark that lit the fire, so it had always had to start with that tragedy. Slowly, it also became about women rising up.
Were you ever worried that this serious news event might overwhelm the story you initially set out to make?
No, because it was organic, the way the girls made it part of their lives. And it wasn’t something that took up their days. Because they’re teenagers, they were consumed with themselves. When the coach came in, I was inspired and I wanted to tell a different story about Baltimore. She came up with the Black Lives Matter performance, and it was then that they finally got the idea that, even though step was fun, it brought them together, and they had a message and a mission, and it wasn’t just about stepping. But they didn’t have an agenda, and to be honest, neither did I.
Were there girls that we don’t see in the film that were hard to leave on the cutting room floor? Also, considering that you’re filming girls, were you ever worried about exposing their lives to the public in a movie?
Yes, there were definitely other girls. For many girls, it’s not college or bust; it’s just not realistic for everyone right now. One girl all she wanted to do is go to hair school, and that was her dream, and I watched scenes where she told her mom that hair school was college, and she was doing all the hair of all the girls on step team, and that was a beautiful, topical story. There’s another young woman who I love and adore, and she’s credited as a production assistant on the film. I loved this girl; I though she was so interesting and there was so much going on in her personal life, but she wanted to do behind the camera, and she wanted to learn how to do production, and didn’t want to reveal her life. I didn’t put a lot of pressure on her to open up, and she was great with helping make the film. And I respected that.
And there’s no question that I am worried. I feel that right now. I never thought we would have this opportunity to have Fox Searchlight release the film on a national level. They were minors, after all, and I had to protect them. And I worry about that all the time. My biggest concern is making sure they all could go home again, and not having a problem for them to go back to their neighborhoods. When I was making the film, I was also conscious of this, thinking: Will this make it hard for them to walk down their own street?
I'm interested in how Step will be received by audiences in the current political climate. It's not a political film in any overt ways, but I do think it's possible to perceive it in that way. How do you think of it as political, or not?
I think it’s a story about young women coming of age, and breaking down the boundaries of their families and going beyond what their parents had done. That’s the heart of the film. Do they live in America and are they living in all the political drama of America. Yes. But is it a political film? No. It’s a story about young women coming of age in an American city, and we don’t get to see that a lot.