Questions & Answers
Ann Vachon and Malichi Roth discuss their influences and challenges on
making Limón: A Life Beyond Words
What was your biggest challenge in making this documentary?
The biggest challenge in making this documentary was raising the money.
Creatively speaking the greatest challenge involved resisting the urge to
edit out the most vulnerable ideas in the film. Everyone who gave feedback
had their favorite scenes and characters and the ones they thought should be
pulled. Eventually the most vulnerable moments would all be questioned or
challenged by one person or another-those lines and scenes would also wind
up being the films most powerful moments.
Generally when someone suggests that you remove something that seems risky
or confusing or just too far out on a limb they are not necessarily saying
that they don't like what you have done but are instead concerned that
others won't get it. When getting feedback it is important to tell people to
relate their experience and not concern themselves with what others might
interpret. Expecting the committee approach to uphold your vision will
result in a very tame and sterile film.
What did you discover about Limon's dance techniques or his life as you
gathered the archival footage of Limon's performances?
One of the things I discovered about Limón as we gathered archival
footage of his work was how accessible and socially conscious so much of
his early work was. I was intrigued to discover that Limón had such a
deep desire for audiences of all walks of life to be able to understand
and appreciate his work. This seems to have led him to create many dances
which are almost like silent theater (sometimes literally as in The
Moor's Pavane and Emperor Jones) and even seem to have a kinship to
silent film acting particularly as embodied by German expressionism.
There was also in these works a strong desire to, in Limón's words
"speak of the dignity of man." He seemed to have a relentless desire to
help rectify the world's self destructive tendencies through his art.
For these reasons his work is just as relevant and important today as
when he created it.
How did you decide how much of a performance to use to tell his story?
Figuring out how much of a performance to use to tell Limón's story was
not an analytical process. The original cut of the film was over three
hours. Over time the film was distilled into what felt like the most
appropriate length but the proportions were kept in tact so that his work
would wind up being as important as any other element in conveying the
importance of his legacy. I felt that most people who were not familiar
with Limón would not have the interest or patience to sit through his
dances unless they had first become interested in him as a person. This
is why we chose the strict chronological or biographic approach. I felt
that if viewers were drawn into the incredible story of his early life
that they would be more than prepared to be immersed in his dances and
have a context with which to interpret and absorb the strength of his
work. There was also another factor which seemed to align perfectly with
this approach; the fact that Limón never finished his autobiography which
is used as the main narration in the first half of the film. The idea
became that Limón's own words would convey the first half of his story
while his dances would convey the second half.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently during the
production and post production of the film? Is there anything you are
The only thing I would have done differently would be to have allowed the
major dance sections to have remained a few minutes longer than they
wound up. Since we have a short version and a long version there is no
reason not to have allowed those sections to breath a little more in the
long version and show a bit more of the genius of this great artist. It
is extremely important to stay true to your vision and not allow fears of
what audiences may or may not like dictate your decisions. Only now after
having shown the film to numerous enthusiastic audiences do I realize
that a few more minutes of dance would not only have been okay, it would
have made the long version better. I should have fought harder to keep
those sections intact.
The independent film world is a difficult one, what keeps you motivated?
In the end of the film one of Limón's dancers tells a story of when she
was loosing her motivation and José renewed her dedication with a simple
sentence. "As long as we have a man in that White house like Nixon" she
quoted Limón "we have to do our work with every bit of courage and
dedication that we have." At one point I had some people tell me that
they liked the quote but thought it might be a little heavy handed for
some audiences. Well nobody says that anymore. If anything I feel that
the film has the potential to have the same effect on audiences, during
these troubling times, as that sentence had on Limón's young protégé.
Knowing that it is possible, with intense dedication and sacrifice to
create an artistic tool that can help people make sense of the world is
the real motivation that drives me. Knowing that art can help inspire
people as well as find meaning and hope when they are scared or in pain
is a great reward. I have received so much from the artists that I admire
and it is gratifying and motivating to think that I may be able to give
something to people who I have never met yet may have touched with this
Having completed a documentary, what advice would you give an emerging
Documentaries take time. Don't feel ashamed of that inescapable fact.
Sure you can pump them out but they won't be as good. I think
documentary filmmakers should accept that it will be a long haul and
enjoy the slow process of distilling a mountain of information into a
coherent narrative. It may mean that you get paid less and miss out on
certain career opportunities but in the long run making one great film
will help your career a lot more than rushing to completion on several
mediocre ones. I also feel that documentary filmmakers should accept that
at their best they are not just journalists but artists and
entertainers. They should study narrative film in order to understand the
art of story telling and learn to barrow those techniques when making
documentaries. There should be a real effort to develop their own
informed world view that will breath life into everything they do. It is
important to care about life and to take part in the struggles they
document. One thing I have learned from making films is that there is no
way any film can be anything other than extremely subjective and
manipulative. Documentary filmmakers who convince themselves that they
are objective and non manipulative are lying to themselves and will wind
up misguiding their viewers in ways they never intended. Better to
realize you are utilizing an artistic medium and choose how you will
insert yourself into the project as an author rather than pretend that
you are just a fly on the wall. That said it is equally important that
filmmakers serve their subject matter, on an ethical basis, more than it
serves them as fuel for their careers.
What impact do you hope to have with this program?
First and foremost I would like for the dance community and art
historians in general to re-evaluate Limón so that he may take his proper
place among the great American artists of our century. I would also love
the film to inspire young dancers to follow their dreams and cause
choreographers to allow Limón's work to influence their own. I would also
love for the film to draw people's attention to important and
enlightening facets of the American experience like the artistic
renaissance that took place as the world gathered it's strength to fight
off the fascist movements of the 30s and 40s. In many ways the film is
just as much about what it is to be an American artist as it is about
Limón himself. I wanted to draw people closer to the belief that if they
hold their ideals close to their hearts at all times and pursue that
which they believe to be right not just in the voting booth but in the
way they live their lives, create their art and engage in their
professions that we really can create a world which we can be proud to
pass on to future generations.
Why did you choose to present your film in public television?
Public television is the natural home for a project like this. PBS is the
place where documentaries on the arts are most likely to bee seen
particularly by the general public. It was the obvious goal to work
toward even if the film was designed just as much to be seen in a theater
with a large audience.
What artists have influenced you the most in your career? Your life?
Other than Limón the biggest influence by a long shot is John Ford after
which comes Jean Renoir & Luis Bunuel.
What is your motto?
"Those who expect ignorance and freedom are those who expect that which
never was and never will be"