When you think of the modern dance film, there’s probably a certain image that springs to mind; attractive people busting moves in very little clothing. If that’s the expectation you have, then prepare to have it shattered by Vanessa Beletic in her 12-minute dance thriller Catching Spirits.
From the opening shot of her short, bodies tightly interlocked in a dance studio, it’s evident the Haiti-born director has something else in mind with her film, but it consistently lulls you into a false sense of security, through its dance studio scenes, before disrupting this sense of familiarity with a number of unsettling moments.
The scene where our protagonist (magnetically portrayed by Destiny Freidin) talks to herself in the mirror is the first real indicator there might be something supernatural at play here (although the title should give us a clue!), but it’s the final dance scene where it’s taken to another level. As our wannabe dancer shows what she can do, there’s still part of us, as a viewer, that wants her to succeed and wants her to belong, but again, that’s not what Beletic is aiming for here.
“In Catching Spirits I’m exploring the idea that dance, for certain people, can become a power – a supernatural, bad-ass, telepathic, visionary ability. One that must be harnessed and used the right way”, the director explains as we discuss her motivation behind creating this short. If you ever stumbled down a rabbit hole of watching online video, you might have come across footage of people wildly dancing in religious situations and again the relationship between spirituality and dance was something Beletic wanted to explore.
“This is a story with roots in folklores found around the world”
“In many spiritual practices dance is used as a way to open oneself up to the spirit world – an act of worship to enter an altered state of consciousness”, the filmmaker adds. “In the Southern Black church, the Holy Ghost can take over during a praise break. In Haitian Vodou, one catches a Lwa. In Balinese culture it’s believed that some dances are so powerful, that even the audience can come into contact with the spirit world and be possessed by god. Loosely based on my own experiences growing up in Haiti – a country with a complex relationship between the deeply religious and those practicing traditional African spirituality – this is a story with roots in folklores found around the world.
Blending the dance film with elements of the horror/thriller genre is a combination not often seen in the world of shorts, or features, but Beletic makes it look effortless, her film constantly gripping and hugely entertaining. However, the fusion of these filmmaking approaches wasn’t coincidental, the director gave plenty of thought to why she would include them, explaining that she wanted to “provoke some thought by using genre tropes and repositioning them to be more mystical and evocative VS scary just to be scary”.
Alongside Beletic’s confident direction, JD Butler’s cinematography pulls you into the short’s world, constantly moving like the dancers it captures, while Eric Alexander-Hughes‘ edit proves vital in creating the rhythm that is so important in the film’s success. The performances are also key to the film’s hypnotic nature and as alluded to earlier it’s Freidin in the lead role that steals the show, but Justin Porter is truly enigmatic as the dancer she admires and Brian Drake adds a necessary touch of jealousy and malice to the narrative.
Having accepted Catching Spirits for Short of the Week when it was submitted to us almost a year ago, I’ve been looking forward to sharing it with our audience ever since. A distinct and original piece of filmmaking, Beletic’s film is one of my favourites to be featured on our pages this year and one I’m yet to tire of after multiple viewings. However, in creating Catching Spirits the director was aiming for more than just entertainment as an outcome, so I’m going to leave it to her to close-out the article, as her words, about her film, hold more power than mine ever could:
“My goal with this film is to provoke conversations around the global perception of black people and magic being synonymous with so called ‘dark arts.’ Although this is not a ‘voodoo’ film, I’m inspired to expose people to Vodou – which has more to do with venerating ancestors and having a connection with nature, than it does curses and pins in dolls, all that old Hollywood crap. I’m also holding space for young black people to let themselves be “magical”, in an empowering way.”