Anna Rose Holmer’s Debut Film Shows How to Occupy the World by Occupying Your Own Body
During the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, I viewed The Fits, a film about a young black female boxer who wants to transition over to the world of competitive drill dance. I was expecting a coming-of-age sports movie.
Before the screening, I had a chance to talk with director Anna Rose Holmer about her inspiration for the film. During the interview I called The Fits “a sports movie” repeatedly. A few hours later, when I saw it, I realized how wrong I was.
I did get one thing right. It was, in part, a coming-of-age film. I asked Anna about what made her want to make the film.
Anna Rose Holmer: I had this little seed of an idea while producing the documentary Ballet 422. Something about this process that really struck me was body mirroring and how it goes into dance, and learning how to dance. Around the same time I was doing research and I started to think about sort of the mundane choreography of everyday in adolescence. How everyday we use body mirroring to learn about ourselves [and] our communities, and seeing adolescence as sort of this complicated dance. I started thinking about this, exploring hysterics and the idea that that’s often put in a female space … I wrote the film with other women: Lisa Kjeruff and Saela Davis. We had to work in the constraints of the Biennale College Cinema grant we received, so that was extremely inspirational too.
We then talked about the film’s star, Royalty Hightower and the Q-Kidz, the dance troupe she belonged to.
Holmer: I knew early on I wanted to cast teenage girls who all knew each other. They’re all playing parts, but that texture of the real social fabric of that community was something that was really important in the process.
From the opening shot of the film, through its unconventional choice in score and all the way until the very end, Holmer gives you nothing and everything at the same time. She lets Toni’s (Royalty Hightower) pensive, expressive face give you pictures — but no words. At first, you’re projecting yourself into those blanks, possibly being nostalgic for your 10-year-old self. Then, as if Holmer is holding your head to the tub, she pushes your face under the water slowly until all you can experience is Hightower’s perspective. Being present as Toni — having to navigate your changing body and changing emotions while managing not only your community’s expectations but your own — is where the viewer has the best seat in the house.
Holmer: A big question for me was, “what does it mean to be an ideal female form, in an athletic sense?” Toni is struggling with that … what’s ideal for her body in the boxing gym changes when she crosses the hall into the dance gym. Nothing about her has changed, just the context.
Holmer Named a ‘New Face of Independent Film’
The Fits is Holmer’s debut feature. However, she has already been named one of the 25 new faces of independent film by Filmmaker magazine. I asked her what it was like getting to helm a feature for the first time and if there was anything specific to her identity, in her journey, that happened in the process.
Holmer: “The journey for me was discovering what kind of leader I wanted to be. [I wanted to make sure] I was leading from a position of collaboration, and not a position of top-down. I’m most proud of the style of that collaborative effort. With The Fits we were so rogue and outside the system…we didn’t have a lot of those “business pressures” that a lot of women face in the process. We do talk about this pressure as a female filmmaker to succeed. We feel like the opportunity to fail isn’t allowed, because if we fail it’s somehow representative of other people failing, even thought it should be one singular thing! My hope is that we could be afforded the opportunity to experiment and fail and have that not be indicative of all women who want to direct a movie!
The Fits has an all-Black cast of young dancers. When Holmer found the Q-Kidz on YouTube, she knew she wanted to collaborate with them. She didn’t tell a tired story about underprivileged kids or a white savior coming to the hood. She just told what was, essentially, their story. I asked her what she thought of the current state of diversity and representation in media.
Holmer: I see inclusive voices creating content on a daily basis, and it’s going to reach a boiling point if it hasn’t already. It’s exciting because it means audiences are gonna have access to see themselves on screen. For those who are occupying the majority of the screen right now, for them to be forced to have empathy and see themselves in people who don’t look or act like them. That’s what’s so exciting about film. You can put yourself in someone else’s body, and that’s what good films can do. I think the filmmakers out there are making content, it’s just having to live in this fringe, super-independent, micro-budget space. The ones at the top with the purchasing power are the ones who need to take the risk.
I was’t ready for what I was going to feel post-film. The sci-fi elements, mixed with the the horrors of growing up, all with a POC cast was uplifting to see. It is not only a triumph of a film, but a triumph in its occupation in the film world.
The Fits opens in the San Francisco Bay Area June 17.