Behind the Scenes of We Don't Dance for Nothing


We Don't Dance for Nothing is about Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong, their struggles, dreams, and communal expression through dance. The main character “H,” played by Miles Sible, raises the children of two busy Chinese parents. This is a common arrangement in Hong Kong, where roughly 200,000 Filipinx women have left their homes to raise the children of their employers. They experience abuse, live under constant threat of deportation, and have no path to permanent residency. But they’ve also created a thriving dance culture in the city center on Sundays, where they gather. This is where director Stefanos Tai saw an opportunity to create a multi-dimensional story highlighting these workers’ talents.


The film was shot on 16mm, using almost entirely still images to convey a sense of the main character feeling stuck within her circumstances. It combines real events, remembered personal narratives, and staged dances with hundreds of domestic workers. Production took place in 2020, during Hong Kong’s social unrest and the pandemic lockdowns.

This interview by Conor Provenzano with Stefanos Tai was conducted one month after the world premiere of the film “We Don’t Dance for Nothing” at DOXA Film Festival in Vancouver BC on 10 May 2022.

Director Stefanos Tai

Conor Provenzano: I want to ask you about the writing process. I’m curious what it was like for you to go out and meet women on Sunday and then develop relationships and access.


Stefanos Tai: I fell into the community pretty quickly. They were hospitable to me, they invited me to things - barbecues, birthday parties, and dances. They were surprised that this foreigner wanted to hang out with them, and I told them every Sunday I was making a project. Most didn’t take it seriously, and many didn’t care, or were too exhausted from their workweek to care, so I had to meet them where they were.


CP: Did you write the script from transcribed interviews?


ST: We had so many conversations, but most of them were not transcribed. At that point I didn’t know what form the project would take, I was just inspired. But eventually, I started to keep notes and read books. I researched in-depth, watched documentaries, we danced more together, and I came to realize that no one in the media was framing them through their talents. Everyone was only talking about their struggles. I could see they wanted to be known for more than just their professions, as we all do. So from there I wrote an outline myself and started to model characters based on the people I’d met.

CP: Did you go over outlines together?

ST: Always in a very loose way. We didn’t say, “Everyone! Let’s meet on Sunday and we’ll go over the latest draft.” That couldn’t have worked, and I was always respectful of their time since they were often exhausted. Sunday was their only day off, so I’d just try to listen. And I heard trends of what they were dealing with; not enough food was shockingly common.


From there I wrote a script in English. And the actors, I would say, did a lot of writing as well. A) to convert the narrative into Tagalog, but also B) to point out anything that wouldn’t ring true to actual members of their community. I gave them enormous agency, but I reminded them that we’re not making propaganda. Of course we’re painting these women with warmth, but we wouldn’t ignore anything, or sanitize their rougher edges. Sometimes these women would make jokes about the Chinese folks and, you know, is it benign? Is it racist? I’m not sure. It’s a small way they can feel some power over their situation, for a moment. But I felt we needed to show all sides of their personalities, including these moments, even if they elicit mixed reactions from an audience.


CP: Right, that’s a good example of a multi-dimensional representation.


ST: We tried to be fair, and re-writing took place until the end of post. We could change anything because we shot mainly in still images. We recorded the location sound on set but it wasn’t synced. So in the sound studio later, we’d play the location dialogue, and the actors would say, “Oh, it would be funnier if I said it like this”. They were redesigning lines and I was furiously writing notes trying to catch up. Enormous credit goes to our cast.

CP: Did you feel any doubts as an outsider?


ST: Definitely, mostly stemming from the fact that I don’t speak Tagalog. Sometimes I get the oddest questions on this topic. People ask me, “Did you ever consider doing it in English”? And the answer is no, because they don’t speak to each other in English.


CP: It’s a basic matter of representation, and maybe de-centering this whole English obsession.


ST: The other question, perhaps even more ridiculous is: “What was behind the decision to cast Filipino talent to play Filipinos?”

Trailer of We Don't Dance For Nothing


CP: Wow. That indicates the need for this film, actually.


ST: And many more as well, right? But I definitely had doubts. I think the key was meeting with Filipino folks, not only domestic workers but friends of ours, friends of our actors, early in the script stage. I would annoy them: “You need to tell me: does this line make sense? Tear it apart, please! Because the worst thing that could happen is to have viewers say, ‘that doesn’t make sense in Tagalog! Who wrote this?’” I’m still worried someone will see the film and catch something that we never did (so far nothing major has happened).


It was also important for us to hold work-in-progress screenings. Our friends and actors brought their parents and grandparents. I needed to see if the cut could work for them all. And they did point out many things to change, remove, or fix.


CP: Let’s talk a little bit about the dance element. Do you have a history of dance, or a dance background?


ST: My parents were dancers. I think dance is the highest form of art. It’s the most beautiful thing to watch in person, or on-screen. It’s also the most beautiful thing you create with someone. It’s like music, it’s beyond words. So I’ve always had an appreciation for it, but seeing the domestic workers dancing expanded my whole view on dance. I saw literally hundreds of women in the middle of the city— which, by the way, is not embellished, and actually does happen every Sunday. People never believe me, but I say, “Go to Hong Kong and see for yourself.” COVID has reduced its scale, but still it’s there.


So while at first, I saw their street dancing as fun, and visually interesting, it was once I looked closer that I discovered how profound dance was to them. It’s not all happy faces. Despite their high level of skill, you can sense that many are dancing to shed something, trying to release something. It’s an act of survival, and they weren’t dancing for nothing, hence the film’s title. And when I asked them about this, I heard things like “it’s the only way we can forget. In dance, I can feel like I’m not here anymore.” Or, “by moving my body, I can escape that house that I’m working in, 24 hours a day.”


CP: You said in a panel I watched recently that they’re “dancing through their struggles,” which indicates a serious need for embodiment, to return to the body. Of course, it’s true for everyone, but these women have such a demanding schedule and only one day for self-care.


ST: Absolutely. I’ve started to believe recently that art needs something to push back against, and they certainly have no shortage. They’re dancing with their pain. And that’s how I view the film, as a dance-filled romance between H and her circumstances. She’s constantly wrestling to figure out her life. But again, on a simpler level, the talent of these domestic workers was unbelievable. I couldn’t imagine that they’re not practicing their routines daily, and it often seemed unbelievable that they could do strenuous housework all week long, and summon such energy on Sundays.


CP: Yes I agree. [SPOILER ALERT] And then there’s the intimacy of the duet sequences between the two leads, H and Sampa. And they never kiss! Can you talk a little bit about that choice?


ST: It might sound strange, but I believe that in general, kissing is shown too much in films. I like the Bollywood approach - kissing is almost obscene. You don’t need it, and often the moment is stronger with only its implication, or the tension… There’s a Danish director I like, Nicolas Winding Refn. He says violence in films is like sex: it’s about the build-up. And I think romance is the same. A kiss always feels like the climax of a romantic buildup, but I feel it’s usually so poorly done in films, and it takes me out. I begin thinking of these two actors, who are clearly not in love, and how they must be feeling during the take. To me, some things just can’t be faked.

CP: Chemistry, you know…

ST: So in this film, we take viewers right up to that point, without actually showing a kiss. It essentially accomplishes the same thing, but we don’t need to see it. Of course, kissing is not actually obscene, I guess I just believe it’s often creatively stronger to imply than show. And I mean that for men and women, women and women, men and men. It’s a general proclivity I have.


CP: Thank you for that. We don’t actually know if the two characters H and Sampa ever explore each other sexually, and what if they don’t?

ST: Right.


CP: They have a real connection that is vulnerable. But it couldn’t possibly come across that you view sexuality as obscene, because there is so much tension in the dance sequences as they are. The body-dancing and so on.


ST: I hope so.


CP: Was that how it appeared to you in person?


ST: Absolutely. You would see a lot of relationships that seemed romantic, but you couldn’t be sure. Nobody was talking about it, and it wasn’t my place to ask directly. But I also found these relationships beautiful, because Hong Kong, despite its glitz, is a conservative place, and there are still many folks against two women being together. And domestic workers usually can’t afford to risk losing their jobs, so I wanted to show that it’s not Berlin, or New York City. Hong Kong is a different place, and it’s a more closed society that they're navigating.


CP: The performances were so moving and so real to me. And yet, the film consists mainly of still images. Xyza and Miles (who play H and Sampa) said that they couldn’t use footage from WDDFN in their reel. This was shocking to me. And you responded to that by saying that industry people showered praise on their performances.

ST: I think what they meant— which I understand— is that it’s hard for them to show still-image performances to get moving-image acting jobs. And I’d be lying if I said I knew with certainty that their performances - or any actors performances - would be heightened by stills. I felt strongly stills could carry weight emotionally, but it was always a risk. A worthwhile one .

CP: It’s also the nature of moving images that there are gaps in between the frames. Our eyes and our brains put it together.

ST: True.

CP: Actually I found this film to be more immersive than traditional 24-frames-per-second. There’s a lot of movement, it’s dynamic. [SPOILER ALERT] And it all builds toward a scene at the beach, the one-take dance, which was shot in 24fps. It took two days, four takes, and an unbelievable performance by Miles— the music and display of emotion through movement was so intense for me, it was so effective. Miles could use that for her reel, right?

ST: She can definitely use that one for her reel! But if we’d shown the dances in stills as well, the actors would have killed me (laughs). And this gets to the heart of the watchability question. I always wanted to meet viewers halfway. We can and should ask people to watch something different, but we’ve got to reward them for their effort. I intended for viewers to be a bit uncomfortable in the beginning, but tried to structure the film such that if they put in a bit of extra work, there would be something to be gained, a transcendence of the medium itself… And the dances are the key to this— nobody dislikes watching dance on-screen. And ours are peppered in throughout the film, so if viewers start to tire of the static stills-treatment, there’s always a high-octane dance right around the corner, to grab you with a more familiar experience, more easily “watchable.”


CP: I felt it was a breeze to watch. The still images are never held for too long. Not as long as La Jetée, which you cite as one of the influences. Have you had any complaints about the stills?


ST: Oh yeah (he laughs). Of course.

CP: A lot?

ST: Not a lot. I think it’s about expectations. I do find that if we’re sending it to people and they’re watching it on a small screen (or their phone), and they have no idea that it’s not a traditional film, I end up hearing “is my Wi-Fi broken? What’s going on?” And that’s a tough place to come back from within a 90-minute film. But several people have also said they grew to love our cinematic experiment. Overall, we’ve seen everything from standing ovations to walkouts.


CP: That’s hard, knowing it didn’t work for some people. But there’s also the issue of lack of viewer openness. We shouldn’t write things off so quickly. I myself have been historically bad at this, walking out of films and so on. Then later, facing heavy criticism of my own work, I start remembering the way certain friends seem to appreciate and learn from everything they see. Sometimes our criticisms say more about us.



CP: Let’s talk about photo-montage. This is the correct term, right? “Photo-montage”?


ST: I suppose so (laughs). If there is one.


CP: From the financial side, was it difficult to pitch this film? “La Jeteé” is only 28 minutes, and here you have an 86-minute film.


ST: It was difficult. Many producers we spoke to didn’t understand why we even cared about this topic, why this needed to be a movie. I’d say, “aren’t you inspired when you see these women dancing?”, but we’d get blank looks, and responses like “yeah, but who cares… why do you want to make a film about maids. We already know about them.” And I think that’s a result of some people in Hong Kong having grown up around domestic workers. They don’t see these women as special, as anything more than their cleaners and cooks. And another sad truth… was that box office revenue was the first, last, and only concern of so many people in the industry. Or wanting to shoot sexier topics with celebrities to build their clout… And let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with making money with a celebrity-driven film, but I quietly thought to myself, “isn’t there something you want to say with your films? I’m trying to help someone, somehow. Whether I succeed or not, I am trying. How about you?” But despite living amongst hundreds of thousands of Filipino workers, they somehow seemed not to care about Filipinos at all.


CP: Filipino women specifically, if we want to name that.


ST: Definitely… Now, about financing such a wildly different kind of film (a photo-montage), funders would say “it sounds interesting, do you have an example?” And we’d say, “Well… there’s La Jetée,” and you’d be surprised how many people have never heard of “La Jetée.”


CP: I’m not surprised I guess, because it’s mostly shown in Universities these days.

ST: But it’s also on the IMDb “Top 250 Films of All Time” I believe. In the film world it’s iconic, right?


CP: True, true.

ST: I love Chris Marker’s work. But even now, some people tell me, “don’t mention ‘La Jetée’ cause you can never sell your film. You’re trying to sell your movie, don’t mention a movie that’s unsellable!” (laughs)


CP: So you mention “La La Land” as well [in the pitch], which was really smart, I thought.


ST: Certainly, that’s a very profitable film.


CP: Brilliant marketing move.


ST: Well, let’s see if it works. No one’s bought the film yet! But we’re happy just to have finished it. When I look back, I see how steep our hill was. So many potential funders asked, “have you made a feature?” —“No I haven’t” —“Oh, well do you have name talent attached?” —“No we don’t.” —“And you want to do some sort of photo-movie project that you can’t show us references for?” I could have shown them La Jetée, but I’d have to say “we’re not shooting black and white, it’s not sci-fi, it won’t feel slow, there will be dialogue. Oh, and it’s something of a dance-musical as well.” It’s no wonder people couldn’t visualize that - and fair enough, right? It was hard enough for me to visualize…


CP: How did you reach producers in the beginning? Can you describe that process a little more?

ST: We attended Hong Kong Film Art. We cold-talked to as many producers as possible and… it’s funny how these industry events work. We didn’t have a script yet, but had a one pager, a 15-second read. We attended meetings and I’d hand over the one-pager, and I would see them take the paper, not read any of it, put it down and say, “You know, Stefanos, I think your idea is strong, but I think you need to go back to the drawing board and make sure it has this, that and the other…” It was ridiculous, but today, some of those very people have seen our finished film and reached back out to congratulate us. I think people don’t expect you to actually make a movie when you say you will. And now that I’ve crossed that first finish line with this project, they view me as an entirely new filmmaker, which is odd considering that I’m still the same artist, interested in the same stories. The reason I make films is the same.

CP: Well, your film got made, you’re showing it, and you have, to me, a lot of grounded confidence in speaking about it. But at that time, when you had no backing, it must have been hard on your confidence. How did you deal with that?

ST: I’m fortunate that older and more accomplished directors had told me it was the same for them. And also thanks to the internet, you can find any master filmmaker’s advice on YouTube, and they echo the same struggles. The industry has high walls, and you’ve got to find a way over them while it’s raining ‘no’s. Of course you’re helped by amazing friends, but you really do hear ninety-nine ‘no’s for every ‘yes.’ Especially if you’re doing something entirely new.


And to be fair, I didn’t make it easy on myself. I knew making a photo-montage feature was crazy, but I thought, “If I can pull this off, with the right team, and make something entertaining out of a shooting style most people wouldn’t touch, nobody else will be in that space. We’ll be truly original, which counts for a lot in today’s world of commodified, derivative filmmaking. But along the way, so many naysayers told us bluntly we were working with a bad idea, or trying too hard to be different. But I tuned them out, because they never bothered to boil the idea down to its fundamentals. They never could answer: Why can’t a photo-montage work? Exactly, why? Prove it. So I knew that if we afforded ourselves this level of intense curiosity, and never made assumptions about what could or couldn’t work until we tried— if we started there, and created anything of interest, we’d get attention. And, we’d attract the perfect future collaborators: people willing to take risks and forge new ground.


CP: That’s right… I wish you all the best with this amazing work of art that amplifies the experiences of domestic workers in Hong Kong. Right up until the end, it was so tender and sad and beautiful. I had a lot of tears for this character H.


ST: That’s really nice to hear, thank you for saying that. And thank you for being willing to amplify, it helps a lot.


CP: I felt a responsibility to do so, because it touched me deeply. Thank you for letting me into your process.


 

In collaboration with Movies Move Us on film making with social impact.


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Upcoming:

Singapore International Film Festival

Sunday November 27th, 1:30PM


Hawaii International Film Festival [Online]

until November 27th

 

All images courtesy of Stefanos Tai.