AWFJ Presents ONLY WHEN I DANCE – Review by Jennifer Green

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It is only when he’s dancing that Brazilian teen Irlan Santos da Silva says he feels like himself. Born and raised in one of Rio de Janeiro’s impoverished favelas, ballet has offered Irlan an escape from the chaos of the city streets. He confides this to director Beadie Finzi’s omnipresent camera in the 2009 documentary Only When I Dance, an intimate character portrait of two young dancers following their passion to overcome the odds of their upbringing in the Brazilian metropolis.

The second teen is Isabela Coracy Alves Nascimento Santos, one of the only black ballerinas at their dance school, the Centro de Danca Rio. Her dream is to dance in a classical ballet company, an ambition their teacher, Mariza Estrella, notes is next to impossible in Brazil because of her race. Instead, Mariza is intent on helping Isabela land a spot with an international company. To do that, she’ll need to participate in local, national and international competitions to get noticed. This takes money, of which her family has precious little.

The documentary opens on Irlan dancing on the rooftop of a building, shanty-dotted hills in the background framed by his body as he elegantly twists, bends and leaps across the surface. According to Mariza, Irlan is one of Brazil’s most promising young dancers. The film bears this out as it follows him to success at stiff competitions in Lausanne, Switzerland and New York City.

Isabela isn’t so lucky. Apart from racial discrimination, she’s also critiqued for her weight, which causes a lot of stress (and to the layman’s eyes is frankly hard to accept). Her family can barely scrape together the funds to get her to the competition in New York, taking on extra jobs and loans. When she doesn’t place in the individual competition, it’s clear that might be the end of her as-yet unlaunched career. Mariza is uncomfortably direct in telling Isabela it’s not worth returning to the competition before she loses weight and gets more training. Isabela thanks her through tears for her honesty.

These highs and lows are gripping because they feel like they’re happening in real time as you watch the documentary (even though the film was shot in 2008, which only calls the attention when people whip out digital cameras rather than smartphones). The film takes on heightened emotion because the stars are still kids and you want them to do well, especially teens with so much talent in light of such difficult life circumstances. Continue reading

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Jennifer Green

Jennifer Green is a regular contributor to Common Sense Media, The Hollywood Reporter, The Seattle Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was Screen International's correspondent in Spain for ten years. She launched the newspaper column and website Films from Afar to curate international films available for home streaming. She has served on film festival juries across Spain and North Africa and teaches journalism and film to university students.