SONDER was the winner of BEST PERFORMANCES at the February 2020 Experimental & Dance Festival in Los Angeles.
Matthew Toffolo: What motivated you to make this film?
Kevin Ulibarri: Our film was born from a desire to create with friends while we were all in LA at the same time. We were a group of dancers and filmmakers, and we wanted to make a dance piece that felt cinematic – that was as much about a story as it was about showcasing beautiful choreography. We had about 2 weeks to shoot it before our group would disperse, so that approaching deadline also motivated us to dive right in. Our concept came from a unanimous feeling of fear and helplessness shortly after the inauguration of the 45th president. Collaborating on a piece that addressed those overwhelming feelings was a source of empowerment and creative release for all of us involved.
2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?
From the idea to filming, we had two weeks, very little time to gather our dancers and rehearse. The edit, score, and coloring happened over the next year and a half.
3. How would you describe your short film in two words!?
4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?
The greatest challenge in our creative process was composing the score after the dance itself was filmed. We chose to take this counter-intuitive route because we wanted the dancers’ movements to drive the narrative, rather than react to a song. During rehearsals, we would challenge our choreographers (Darla MacDonald, Juliet Ulibarri) to question any movement that seemed unmotivated by the story, even if it would look good performed on stage; an audience and a camera are two very different observers. The next challenge became crafting a score that would elicit the narrative, and match the movements in time and tone. Our sound engineer and composer, Paul Olsen, understood the importance that sound had for this piece, and together him and I worked to create a score that pushed the concept of the film. It took many sessions and countless hours in his studio, but it was a very rewarding process. And fun!
5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?
There was definitely some excitement and nervousness around it, because this was the first festival screening of Sonder. Something that got mentioned a few times was how great our location was, which at first seemed a bit trivial but then I realized that the observation is warranted; the environment played a huge role in the tone of our film and also posed many challenges when shooting: a 3 hour drive from LA, minimal daylight hours, the wind and cold, and perhaps most of all, the rough sand that our dancers had to perform barefoot on the entire day. So to hear that the location really stood out to the audience makes those challenges worth it.
Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:
6. How did you come up with the idea for this short film?
We knew we wanted to make a dance film that carried emotional, story-telling qualities – we just needed a concept. It was February 2017, and the one thing on everyone’s mind was the new president, along with his racist policies like the travel ban on certain Muslim countries. In those first few weeks of his presidency, so many communities were under attack and the bad news seemed to pile on top of itself everyday. It was easy to feel overwhelmed, pulled in all directions and not know where to focus one’s energy and emotion. We crafted a narrative around that feeling of human empathy, of not knowing how to help the many that need it, and what can happen when we take on that battle alone.
7. What film have you seen the most in your life?
I’d like to name a film a sophisticated filmmaker would watch again and again, but in all honesty it’s probably a Disney movie from the 90s…or Nacho Libre.
8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are you feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?
I’m new to the film festival process, and at first I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of festivals on FlimFreeway, but because our film is rather specific in form and content, it wasn’t too hard to find a good fit. For newer, independent filmmakers, it’s cool to see that there are many chances to have your work shared with a broader community, and for not too expensive if you plan ahead.
9. What song have you listened to the most times in your life?
That’s a tough call, but my family has always loved Queen and I’ve been listening to them since I was a kid. I’m gonna go with “Bohemian Rhapsody” because we would always start headbanging when the epic guitar part came in.
10. What is next for you? A new film?
The creators of Sonder are on diverging paths now, but all of us are still dancing or making films in some capacity. I have been working as a DP more and want to continue to shoot and build those skills. It is also a goal of mine to write and direct a short film this year. We shall see how everything pans out with the industry currently at a stand-still. It seems that now is the time to edit, write, and dream of the day we can return to set.