Born to Fly: Director Catherine Gund On Her New Documentary About the Life and Work of Elizabeth Streb

by David Hershkovits
Catherine Gund. Photo courtesy of Aubin Pictures.

Director Catherine Gund and choreographer/performer Elizabeth Streb were destined to work together. Gund was still a student when they first met while Streb was a visiting professor and the filmmaker never forgot her encounter, eventually becoming a frequent visitor to Streb's dance studio in Williamsburg, taking her children there for classes. It's hard not to get sucked into Streb's world of extreme acrobatics and movement, a dangerous terrain where an ill-timed move can lead to serious injury. And if you're a filmmaker and a feminist, the visual audacity and muscularity of Streb's approach is doubly appealing. The result of Gund and Streb's collaboration is Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity, a fascinating and thoughtful exploration of life and art at the edge. Here, we talk to Gund about the film.

What made you want to do a film about Elizabeth Streb?

The turning point was at one of her gala events when Elizabeth asked me to drop a bowling ball down 35 feet into the waiting hands of her emcee Zaire Baptiste. His catch -- even his willingness to attempt a catch of this kind -- evoked such profound feelings of fear and trust in me. It was a deceptively simple maneuver that left me speechless in the aftermath. I wanted to see if I could elicit those feelings -- of thrill, terror and trust -- in viewers of a film. I challenged myself to use my particular time-based, artistic medium not merely to document Elizabeth's time-based work but to expand it. In fact, I wanted to collide our two artistic forms to invent a third kind of breathless, sweaty, heart-pounding experience.

Did you take any of her classes or get inspired to try out any of the activities?

Other than dropping the bowling ball, I haven't tried many of the feats, even though sometimes I felt compelled. But the closer I got to the equipment -- and the dancers' expertise in using it -- the more self-conscious and scared I became. In fact, Elizabeth once dared me to "play" on Artificial Gravity (the spinning floor). At that moment, dancers were flying off into the wall, through the open air and onto one another and I was reluctant to offer myself up for the crash. I did run up the "Hill," which is probably the most taxing piece in the repertoire. But I could only go up a few times. The lactic acid in your legs builds immediately, leading to immobility, "hitting the wall" (which is usually a metaphor!) and yet the dancers power through, leaping over bodies rolling down, throwing each other from the precipice, and flying through the air at the end to slam on the mats below. It's another emblematic piece... a complex yet pure, archetypal piece. Hopefully the film, and Streb's work, inspires people to push themselves to their own limits, wherever those may be. I cannot see myself hanging off the spokes of the London Eye although I think I'd be willing to get rigged up and walk down a building. In the film, Elizabeth says she was "scared out of her wits" before she walked down the City Hall. I hope the film helps viewers get past their fears. On the path to fearlessness, you have to acknowledge how terrifying life can be. Elizabeth and her dancers are pros at this.

STREB dancers Daniel McIntosh, Elizabeth Streb, Jane Setteducato, and Nancy Alfaro performing "Ringside" in 1985, as seen in Catherine Gund's documentary BORN TO FLY: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity. Photo by Lois Greenfield.

What did you discover in the course of making the film that surprised or shocked you?

I've never focused my lens (or frankly much of my time) on dance before making this film so Elizabeth's foresight in documenting her work was a welcome surprise. We had history in our hands. Without the archival footage, I would have had to rely (for myself AND for the film) on people's descriptions, memories and fantasies of what STREB dance looked like, how it evolved, how it made viewers feel, and what its historical context was. Elizabeth gave us access to over 300 hours of footage, in every format possible, including film, VHS, Beta Cam, Hi-8 and more. The quality of the images runs a gorgeous historical gamut giving vital texture and visual depth to our movie. Now I'm searching for another forgotten box of dusty old tapes to spark my next movie!

Why do you make documentaries?

I make docs (as opposed to narrative films) because truth is stranger than fiction. The more real, specific and detailed way you tell a story, the more universal and impactful it will be. I listen to my characters and I learn from them. I want to mine the form of documentary to motivate, mobilize and build understanding, to draw viewers into the now, into the most sacred space of feeling themselves alive and confident that life is worth fighting for. Beyond that, my favorite films may not clarify anything in particular. Rather, they may make things more ambiguous and confusing, but that ambiguity can be intensely inspiring.

What films have most inspired your career?

One of my cinematographers is also my mentor. Al Maysles, who famously made many inspiring films including Gimme Shelter, Salesman and all his films about Christo and Jeanne Claude, pioneered "direct cinema." His patience reveals a purity akin to Elizabeth's effort to isolate "the move." Hers, you see it then you feel it. His, you feel it and then you start putting it together. That's how a great film works on you, comes back to you days later, doesn't explain what it's doing. Al doesn't need all the acting, all the forced reflection we get in "reality TV." He doesn't want the preparation or the transition, just the moment that moves you. But you have to wait for it. You have to film for hours... for months, without ever knowing what you're waiting for. Al doesn't sensationalize; he listens and watches.

A subversive film that really worked on me was Julie Dash's film Illusions so I wrote my college thesis about it. That was one of my first experiences of watching film critique itself as a medium, of seeing the medium employed to question its own historic mores, tendencies, traditions, propaganda and... illusions. Then Julie made the epic and stunning Daughters of the Dust and although neither of these films is a documentary, they both made me feel the infinite possibilities of creativity and they prove the importance of lushness, beauty, complexity -- the magic that can be cinema.

Finally, the late Marlon Riggs' film Tongues Untied signaled a huge breakthrough for documentary filmmakers because Riggs demonstrated confidence, creativity and commitment to his own unique and vital voice: black, queer and brilliant. And although I was young, I had started on this path and Marlon's film definitely inspired me to continue being a documentary filmmaker.

Subscribe to Get More