It is really good to feel the feelings

/Interview by Natalia Dukhovnikova/

Moniek van der Kallen
is a dance film director from the Netherlands. Her last project «Exhale» is a kind of those films that make you feel lots of things at the same time. From reflection to anger, it evokes a palette of emotions in your own soul and body.

Exhale starts in shock, when a traumatic event makes you aware of your vulnerability. Your reality has been affected. Can you trust your senses?

We talked to Moniek and found out why she chose this theme for her film, what was her inspiration for creating such an aesthetically beautiful project and how interesting it is to film dance art.

Caption from “Exhale”

Tell us more about the idea of creating this film. How did it come to your mind and what was your inspiration?

Around 10 years ago one idea came to my mind about synchronized swimmers. Why do we usually see only perfect lags flowing above water while everything is happening underneath? But it is there where really hard work is being done. These swimmers are used to being upside down although ordinary people are not. Doesn’t this deserve to be shown? So that’s where my inspiration originally started. I decided to create a trilogy that will include all this magnificent choreography. The first dance movie is about learning to trust someone else except yourself. The second one is about the situation when someone breaks that trust. And the third part “Exhale” is about how to regain confidence in your instincts and overcome your trauma.

Talking more about my inspiration, at the beginning of working on this project I mainly referenced dance photographs. Sometime later I watched Euphoria and was impressed by the atmosphere of this series. I discovered a lot of camera tricks and new ways of shooting. And I tried to repeat some of them.

As you say in the description, the key emotions of your work are vulnerability, powerlessness, anger, and confidence. But why exactly these emotions did you want to evoke in the audience with your film?

I think that in our society we are trying to push away hard feelings. And I do that too. But this time I wanted to experience all these emotions by myself. I wanted to overcome them and leave them with a hopeful ending. I realized that sometimes it is really good to feel the feelings even if they are dark. It’s good to be able to live with them and give them a place in your heart. The main aim of this project is to remind people that it is good to have feelings. I want everyone to know that it is real to overcome difficult stuff, learn from it, and be a better person.

Caption from “Exhale” , Alicia Verdú Macián

Where did you find the actor for your film?

I worked with Alicia a little bit on another project that used to be filmed at her school. Then, we had an audition for a couple of dance school students and decided to take her. We had some acting and choreography exercises when working on that project. She is a great choreographer. After that experience, I knew she would be able to do both the dance and acting parts already for my project. And so she did. I only gave her prompts and instructions but the rest she did herself.

And how did the film production go?

We had this concept a long time ago but filmed it only during quarantine. During production itself, we had to follow strict regulations. In the Netherlands, we got an opportunity to film again only in the summer. But even then, of course, we were keeping a distance and things like that. It was not easy. Alicia had to come to us from Spain with the risk of being placed in quarantine. But luckily she was fine so we didn’t force this problem.

We filmed for two days: the first one was in a studio and the second one – in a swimming pool. The dancer did a short training with divers but when shooting she was underwater on her own.

How did you manage to make so many authentic visual components in your film?

Our previous film ended with a shot going into the eye. And that’s why we started “Exhale” with it. We wanted to show that sometimes the fear comes from inside of you, it’s an internal thing. You can be very scared but have to deal with it. We wanted to make it visible so we focused on the visual part of our film. Our aim was to show that she was in turmoil. After someone’s made you hurt, it’s hard to overcome your fears. You have to recalibrate and figure out what is real and what is not. This feeling is like three days of confusion when you are trying to understand what’s going on, what’s upside down. And I wanted to embody that in filming all the different angles.

Caption from “Exhale”

Once I read that if you put on glasses that turn your vision upside down, three days after your brain will get used to that and after putting the glasses off, the vision will stay the same. And again it will take three days for your brain to change it back. And that’s what is happening to my character. And so I felt when once in my life, someone was telling me things about the world that happened to be not true. And when I found out about it, I was really shocked. It took me several days to understand what exactly did happen. So this feeling of not knowing what is real and what is not I wanted to put in this film.

Why did you decide to take part in various film festivals?

Dance films are a really small niche and I’d like to share them with a bigger audience. I’m so proud of the work and want many people to see it and maybe relate. I want people to see that it can be narrative and healing. I hope someone will be watching it and feeling some stuff out of it.

How can you promote your projects in the Netherlands?

Mainly there is one big dance film festival – Cinedans – in Amsterdam. We are really glad that they took our project as a part of their program. Unfortunately, it was only online this time. But it was already a success. Now we are talking about showing our short film before full features at the cinemas or maybe even creating a short films program. But obviously it’s difficult to organize because dance films are not typical for cinemas.

And, of course, I try to share my projects on various social networking sites. First and second parts of this trilogy are already on YouTube and Vimeo.

When discussing your work, it’s curious to know why and how you decided to become a film director.

Many years ago, with a couple of friends we started to do some film projects outside of school. We experimented with documentaries, fiction, and even promo movies. Sometime later I got paid for my work and we decided to make some dance ideas real. That’s how I got started. But I studied cinematography on my own by reading, learning, and talking about it. Currently, I also have a vlog with lesson programs that I’m making for schools.

The crew of “Exhale” filming

Would you like to work in big feature films as a cinematographer?

I’m not sure I’d love to do that. I’m happy to be able creativity make something great. I love this freedom. And I don’t think I’m cut out for all the stress that big film production contains. I prefer teaching about film aspects. And would like to create more light-hearted and full of color independent dance movies.

But if to go in big industry, I’d like to work on some serious commercial projects that contain great dancing and visual effects. Something that allows you to work with various parts of filming.

Would you like to get some extra education?

That’s an interesting question that I ask myself every few years. I’m sure you are never too old to learn. And personally, I always enjoy learning new stuff. So whenever I get an opportunity to do a master’s class, I’ll take it. 

What type of cinematography attracts you most?

Well, I was thinking about going deeper into the commercial projects because bigger budgets give you creative freedom. You can make something crazy, experiment with costumes and choreography. But I’m not discovering the commercial world yet because, honestly, I’m a little bit scared. It is such a responsibility to pitch the idea to the right customer. Today I’m trying to understand what steps I have to do to find the right direction in this field. But I’m definitely interested in it!