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“We Needed a Visual Approach that Would Match the Poetry of Mr. Ailey’s Words”: Jamila Wignot on Ailey

Ailey. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

With Jamila Wignot’s documentary Ailey opening today from NEON, we are reposting Randy Astle’s interview with the director out of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Alvin Ailey’s choreography was as powerful and muscular as it was elegant and sublime. Most dance outsiders probably come to him through his most famous work, 1960’s Revelations, which exemplifies the fierce pride of the Black community moving from slavery through baptism and into celebration. The work also includes delicate and restrained moments, such as in an early pas de deux, where a slowly raised arm contains all the beauty of a the later exultation. This dichotomy is also present in director Jamila Wignot’s new biographical doc, simply titled Ailey, which tells his life story with searing intimacy but also jubilant solidarity.

A tour de force of archival assemblage, the film weaves together innumerable pieces of material to create a well-rounded portrait of Ailey the artist and the human being haunted by mental health issues, substance abuse, and his identity as a gay Black man. Dance footage obviously assumes center stage in this assemblage — rehearsals and choreographing sessions along with performances — but the heart of the film is in the audio recordings that Ailey recorded near the end of his life. The archival footage and Ailey’s life story are juxtaposed against his legacy today, shown through numerous interviews with artists like the company’s subsequent directors Judith Jamison and Robert Battle, but especially embodied by choreographer Rennie Harris composing a new work in the Ailey Studios’ 9th Avenue building. Appropriately entitled Lazarus, this piece depicts the cyclical death and resurrection of Black men and women and the power of their spirit that refuses to stay in the ground; watching it come to life crosscut with Ailey’s own life and death is a powerful demonstration of his own life’s work sowing seeds far beyond his lifetime.

Wignot has already built up an impressive body of work that prepared her for the historical nature of Ailey and many of its racial and artistic themes. She directed the six-hour Peabody- and Emmy-winning PBS series The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, the Peabody-winning Triangle Fire about the 1911 factory disaster, the Emmy-nominated Walt Whitman, and the Tea Party group portrait Town Hall, along with extensive work as a producer. Last week she shared with Filmmaker about how working during the pandemic affected her process, and she answered a few more questions for me about creating the film. It premiered on Saturday January 30 and was acquired by film distributor NEON on the same day, with Dogwoof handling foreign sales.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me how the film came about? Did it originate with the Ailey company themselves, at Insignia Films, or with you?

Wignot: The film originated with Insignia Films. My EPs Stephen Ives and Amanda Pollak were astonished to realize that no biography of Alvin Ailey existed. They approached me in 2017 about coming on board as a director and I immediately said yes. I have loved Mr. Ailey’s work since I first discovered him in college. It was this incredibly visceral experience that struck me in my core. What I saw on stage was so truthful, so free. I remained a fan, but I didn’t know much about Mr. Ailey himself and so I was just thrilled because when I make a film it becomes my whole world and so I was going to be immersing myself into this world of beauty and grace and joy while getting to know this extraordinary artist.

Filmmaker: How was the fundraising process, working with Insignia, compared to your previous work?

Wignot: The fundraising process on Ailey has been a journey unto itself. My previous films were either funded by grants or were commissions where the funding was all in place when I came on board. For Ailey, as with most indie docs, the fundraising took time. We were super fortunate to have the early support of entities like the Ford Foundation and American Masters (North American broadcaster) as well as private donors who were familiar with my work and with Insignia’s thirty-plus year track records in the documentary space. This early support allowed us to begin production, which we did in the summer of 2018 following the rehearsals of Lazarus, the new work commissioned by the company for its sixtieth anniversary.

From there the real fundraising hustle began, spearheaded by my fearless dynamo of a producer Lauren DeFilippo. Lauren shared my vision for the project and was unafraid of what that meant for us in terms of the money it was gong to take. Archival documentaries are expensive, but an archival film with dance materials ups the level of difficulty hugely. We’d raise some money to complete another portion of the filmmaking process, then stop down to raise more money, then do some more work, then stop down. By winter of 2019, we’d finally completed virtually all of our interviews and the question was whether to open up the edit when we didn’t have lal our financing in place. It’s a huge risk because stopping down during the edit was something we wanted to avoid. Lauren was the one who said we should just do it—take a leap of faith. She felt confident that once we got to a rough cut and could show folks the film we’d be able to secure the funds for completion. We were invited to participate in Catalyst in October, which was an incredible, incredible experience. We connected with a wonderful group of funders and investors who are truly passionate about independent filmmaking and filmmakers and that carried us home.

Filmmaker: There is an incredible amount of archival material—film, photographs, and audio—in the film, and it’s cut together with intense kinetic energy. What was your process like uncovering all of that and then molding it into its finished form with your editor Annukka Lilja?

Wignot: The archival materials in this film fill me with such joy! From the beginning, I wanted to make an immersive portrait, a film that felt as if you were experiencing the world through Mr. Ailey’s eyes. This was informed by my early reading and research about Mr. Ailey. It was clear from the biographies that he was someone who was hyper observant, who was open to the world around him, who seemed to feel the spaces he experienced in his body. Eventually, we were given the audio recordings Mr. Ailey conducted in the last year of his life and that material really became the foundation for the film. These recordings feature a side to Mr. Ailey that’s different from the icon you see in the numerous public interviews he conducted over his life. They are vulnerable, honest, and raw. He seemed to not just be describing his past, but to be engaged in an act of remembering that was teleporting him back to his past. My extraordinary editor Annukka Lilja and I were totally in synch about how the film should look visually. We both wanted to use archival in an impressionistic way rather than a representational way because we needed a visual approach that would match the poetry of Mr. Ailey’s words and that could live up to the poetry of his dance works. Another source of inspiration was Mr. Ailey’s notion of blood memories, his childhood experiences in Texas that inform his early works, but that could also be interpreted more broadly as a kind of ancestral memory of Black people. This idea really freed us from feeling like we had to find archival that was contemporaneous to specific time periods Mr. Ailey lived in and allowed us to draw from a wide range of time periods to build our visual representation of the world Mr. Ailey lived in. What was most exciting was the access we had to an extraordinary amount of archival materials that capture everyday black life — family picnics, dances parties, kids playing — all which is newly available because of the wonderful preservation and digitization efforts that make these materials so much more accessible. The process of building the film was a massive undertaking for sure. We built a big, hefty, like four hour assembly, that was really mostly words. From there, Annukka began layering in the visuals. It was a really intuitive process. As we built the visual world, as it took more shape, we realized we could pair back Mr. Ailey’s words to the bare essence because so much meaning was being communicated by the visuals. From there it was about matching the energy of Mr. Ailey’s storytelling and life experiences.

Filmmaker: That contract between Alvin Ailey as a human and as a persona is a major theme, especially as he starts to feel overwhelmed by the weight of his own prestige, and also as you look at choreographer Rennie Harris’ piece in the present day. In some ways it might all be one legacy, but how did you approach that theme in the filmmaking and editing process?

Wignot: Incorporating Rennie Harris’ rehearsal ended up being so tricky because we were in love with him AND Mr. Ailey. It was like being in a committed relationship and finding yourself seduced by another person. One moment we’d be madly in love with Mr. Ailey and the next moment we’d be madly in love with Rennie. And you could feel it in the film, which in the early cuts felt like a dual biography. Ultimately what helped us was to force ourselves to see Rennie and the making of Lazarus as an extension of themes we were exploring in Mr. Ailey’s story. Memory, the expressive possibilities of dance, racial justice, loneliness, etc. Figuring out the structure was another huge part of the process. Rennie’s scenes needed to have their own arc, but also to speak both to where we were in Mr. Ailey’s biography and where we were going next in the story. It was incredibly challenging, but it was also thrilling when it started to come together because we always knew the contemporary piece was essential. A biography that was only about Mr. Ailey would be untrue to him and his vision.

Filmmaker: The issue of race always arises with Ailey’s work, even though he didn’t want to be defined that way. I’m curious if you see that in a similar way with your own work, and what your thoughts are about diversity in documentary funding and production going forward. What needs to happen to make sure there’s not just token representation but a systemic broadening of the voices that are creating and being depicted in nonfiction film?

Wignot: There is so much work to be done. So much self-interrogation that needs to take place within the documentary community about who has had access and resources to tell stories. Documentary films have by and large been made by middle- and upper-class cis het white men and women for middle- and upper-class cis het white men and women. So not only were queer, BIPOC, working class folks shut out of the filmmaking process, we were also subjected to media that told our stories in ways that prioritized a particular, and often dangerous, perspective on our experiences. So, for example, seeing Black life only through a social justice lens where the very real struggles born from a country heavily invested in maintaining racist and brutally violent systems of oppression can be an utterly dehumanizing gaze, a gaze that tells me that my life doesn’t have meaning, doesn’t have drama, unless it’s about suffering and struggle.

The gatekeepers and stakeholders who are upper-class cis het white men and women need to look at the filmmakers and films they have traditionally supported and think critically about them in a way that moves beyond optics. Oh, we have to get an X for this film or there will be an uproar. Be serious and be intentional. Diverse teams behind the camera shouldn’t just be required for films being made about so-called “marginal” groups; they should be a goal period. But they also need to broaden their idea of who makes up the audience and think about what that audience might be hungry for. I am hungry for films that wrestle seriously with white supremacy, but I am also hungry for films that show Black life as it is—as complex and nuanced, as human.

Currently the industry purports to be doing this work or trying to. I hope that this is more than just a moment or a passing fad. Fortunately, we have never and still don’t rely on gatekeepers alone. I’m inspired by groups like Brown Girls Doc Mafia, A-Doc, The New Negress Film Society, Black Documentary Collective, and Firelight Media who have been finding ways to build community, to create visibility, and to share resources, and are responsible for some of the best work out right now.

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