Following its celebrated run at the Melbourne International Film Festival, the new Australian feature documentary Winter at Westbeth will screen in select cinemas around the country from next week. In anticipation of the release, we caught up with the film’s director Rohan Spong to talk about the project, which was filmed across one extraordinary year in New York City’s Westbeth Artists Housing.
How long have you been working in the film industry and in what capacity?
I’m an early career Australian film director and cinematographer primarily making documentary films. I’ve been making documentaries films since 2008 when I shot my first feature T is For Teacher (2009). I was living in Los Angeles at the time and took greyhound buses all over the States in order to tell the story of four transgender school teachers who had transitioned whilst working in American high schools.
My next film was All The Way Through Evening (2012) which was about music composed in New York amidst the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and was screened theatrically here and in the US. Both it and Winter at Westbeth (2016) have been screened at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Even though the scale of my work is getting larger, and more people are working on the films behind the scenes, I still very much like to do the interviews one-on-one. A calling card of my work is probably the candid, confessional nature of the interviews because I shoot and record the sound myself.
There’s an intimacy with this kind of interview and people open up about the joys and tragedies of their lives in a way that they may not, had several people been on set.
Can you briefly describe the premise behind Winter at Westbeth?
Winter at Westbeth is a year in the life of three of the long terms residents of New York City’s Westbeth Artists Housing. The film profiles dancer-turned-filmmaker Edith Stephen (96), famed modern dancer Dudley Williams (75) and poet/playwrite Ilsa Gilbert (82). It’s very much a celebration of pursuing one’s dreams, regardless of your age.
Winter at Westbeth stars modern dancers, Edith Stephens and Dudley Williams. How did they come to be chosen for or involved in the documentary?
Edith Stephen was keen to be involved in the film because she knew it meant that I would film her dancing and that she would be able to use the footage in her own work. It was something of a symbiotic relationship in that we both sort of cross pollinated each other’s films. When a 95 year old says that she’d “like to go into the garden and have a happening”, it’s pretty impossible to say no! That’s my dream day at the office!
Dudley Williams is really an icon of contemporary dance, and was very reclusive when I first arrived at Westbeth. He was reticent to do an interview until we had developed trust, so I spent a lot of time with him, filming his teaching, dancing, every day activities and talked to him off-camera about his amazing history. When he realised that I wasn’t interested in three neat soundbytes he was happy to be interviewed.
Part of the reason why I chose Ilsa Gilbert was because she was literally the first person I met from the building. Part of what you are chasing as a filmmaker is spontaneity and I thought that if I were to use narration, it might be nice for the audience to go behind the scenes a little and see what was involved with the narrator recording her role. I also love her poetry, which features briefly in the film. She writes in a vivid, direct manner that is easy to understand and empathise with, and her work deals with breast cancer, love, art and growing older. We had a lot of fun dreaming up strange new ways to record her voice.
Edith Stephen sounds like such an amazing and uncompromising character. What did you specifically learn from working with her? Can you tell us about your favourite moment or memory involving Edith?
Edith is such an uplifting human to be around. At 96 she’s still so optimistic and idealistic and still very curious about the world. She still participates in her community, via her political filmmaking and activism. I think that subverts a lot of ideas people may have about older generations disengaging with the world. She wears a lot of green eyeshadow and isn’t ready to take on the day until it has been applied liberally. I arrived a little early one day for filming and she hadn’t yet done her makeup and she invited me into the bathroom to film it. That sort of serendipity, the happy accidents involved in making a film, certainly informed the editing of some of the scenes in the film.
The late Dudley Williams was an East Harlem prodigy and another fascinating character. What did you specifically learn from working with him? Can you tell us about your favourite moment or memory involving Dudley?
Dudley Williams is quite simply, one of the greatest dancers of the last century. He danced in various character roles in Martha Graham’s company for six years and in Alvin Ailey’s company for forty. When I met him, that was all behind him and he was a little reclusive because he was no longer dancing professionally and was grieving the loss of a loved one. One of the joys of making the film was having him finally engage with the enormity of his artistic contribution. There’s a scene in the film where he is at the New York Public Library watching his younger self dance one of his seminal solos, A Song For You and realising that people will still be watching this, long after he is gone. Even though he was no longer dancing on the world’s great stages, he wanted to continue to dance and I found that incredibly inspiring – he still felt he had something to communicate through dance. I’m humbled that the film became something of a vehicle for that.
Why do you think people should see Winter at Westbeth?
I’d love people to see the film for lots of reasons – It’s a film that runs the gamut of quiet humour, laugh out loud funny, tragedy, plot twists and some truly uplifting moments. It’s also a visual feast of dance sequences, poetry readings and experimental film from the 1960s. These aren’t the type of characters who usually get a lot of screen time and each of them has something very profound to say about why we make art, what it means to grow older and why it’s important to feel part of a community of young-at-heart people. Maybe the audience will rethink green eyeshadow after seeing it, also.
Edith has shifted her focus from dance to experimental filmmaking. Will you be involved in her debut feature? If not, what advice would you give her about filmmaking?
Well Edith’s main dance in Winter At Westbeth appears in both our films, so I have contributed a little to her feature, which she recently completed. I don’t think I would deign to give her advice, she’s such a unique spirit and has her own story to tell.
How important is dancing to the film Winter at Westbeth? Did the dancers choreograph any of their own works for the film?
Edith’s dance in the garden is more of a “happening” as she calls it – wildly improvised movements that capture how she’s feeling in the moment. Dudley’s performance is choreographed by Frederick Earl Mosley, an esteemed peer. Part of Dudley’s journey in the film is learning the choreography. Both sequences tell us something about the different places these two characters are at in their own lives.
Are you working on your next project? Can you tell us about this?
Producer Adam Farrington-Williams and myself have just received development funding for a new documentary from Screen Australia. It’s provisionally entitled Annie Rides Again and is still very much in it’s early days, but it will also be a character portrait of an artist, and this time will be shot partially in Australia.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
Winter at Westbeth has a beautiful score by indie Melbourne composer and musician Georgia Fields that’s worth the price of admission alone! And Sound designer Craig Carter (Romeo+Juliet, Rabbit Proof Fence) has woven a really immersive and intricate soundscape around the characters, it’s perfect for the cinema.
Winter at Westbeth will screen at selected Event Cinemas and Cinema Nova on February 8th and 12th. Cinema Nova in Melbourne will also be holding a special Q&A event on February 7th. More details about that can be found HERE.