Filmmaker Indrani Kopal discusses her award-winning documentary, The Game Changer, which profiles a dance teacher who successfully initiated a dance rehabilitation program in a New York state prison.
“She comes into a prison environment, an environment where, honestly, the message is that you’re not much, if anything at all. And she says no, I think you’re the world. I think you’re the cream of the crop…and I challenge you to start thinking of yourself in that fashion. And let’s see what happens. Thus I call her the ‘Game Changer’.”—Ray Brito, a former prison inmate, on choreographer and dance teacher Susan Slotnick
It’s not often that you hear about dance rehabilitation programs in prisons, much less a modern dance course targeted at male inmates. But it is precisely a documentary on this topic, produced and directed by a Malaysian, that received critical acclaim in the United States earlier this year.
The Malaysian in question is Indrani Kopal, a former Malaysiakini journalist currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Documentary Studies and Production at Hofstra University in New York. Her documentary, The Game Changer, profiles Susan Slotnick, a dance teacher who initiated a dance rehabilitation program in a New York state prison seven years ago. The film follows Slotnick as she continues to mentor six released inmates in a specially-formed dance company, called Figures in Flight Released. Although originally intended as a student piece for Kopal’s Master’s degree, the film has garnered various accolades, including being named Best Short Documentary at the Harlem International Film Festival 2014.
In addition to her other achievements, including receiving a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to pursue her Master’s degree, Kopal was recently named one of Microsoft and Bustle’s 13 Young Millennials Making Waves. I chatted with the 35-year-old Kuala Lumpur native about her inspiration for the documentary, the challenges involved, and the potential for a similar dance rehabilitation program in Malaysia:
Koh Aun Qi: In your own words—what is your film The Game Changer about?
Indrani Kopal: This film is all about hope. It shows there’s a place for hope in this world, that people always get a second chance, and locking people away isn’t the answer. No matter how hideous a crime you commit, you change, you come out, and there’s always a door out there. You just have to knock on the right door.
The Game Changer is a tribute to the woman who gave some prison inmates a new beginning. It’s about new hope, new beginnings, a new lease of life. You get to see these prison inmates for who they really are, and I very consciously made choices to focus on dance, a woman who believed in the power of dance, and the men who actually trusted her to come into prison and teach them.
Aun Qi: Why did you choose to focus on the dance teacher, Susan Slotnick, rather than the dancers themselves?
Choreographer and dance teacher Susan Slotnick [left] with Figures in Flight Released dancer Jecoina “Casper” Vinson, at Marbletown Multi-Arts, Stone Ridge, New York, January 12, 2014. Photo © Indrani Kopal
Indrani: I knew I was going to do a documentary about rehabilitation through the arts. When I came across Susan, and I met the six dancers [of Figures in Flight Released], I knew these were going to be my characters, people whom I wanted to collaborate with.
I had to submit an advanced project in order to start my thesis. It’s a year-long process, and I didn’t want to channel all my energy into one project. So I proposed to my professor that I would like to focus on this group of people for a year. And as my advanced project for fall 2013, I would like to submit one short documentary about their choreographer, Susan, and my thesis would be about all six of the dancers. I split it into two, because I couldn’t do a feature-length documentary.
So the Game Changer is just about Susan. I was very clear from the beginning. This is Susan’s piece. She’s the key character, the “game changer”. All the six dancers wouldn’t be there if not for her. She had to put up a big fight to go into prison and tell the authorities, “Trust me, I can change these men, let me teach them modern dance.” They didn’t believe her, you know? They said, “You can’t make these men dance!” And she said, “I can. Give me a chance.” That woman deserves a lot of credit.
Aun Qi: What made you decide to feature dance rehabilitation programs for prisoners?
Indrani: In January 2013, I went to Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in upstate New York. I was fortunate enough to go into this huge…lab? Yes, I would say it’s a lab…where people who are mentally challenged are given this big loft space, like a big warehouse, and it looked like an artists’ museum. Because everyone had their own corner, huge paintings and murals, you name it. It looked like a big art lab! I did not expect to see that when I went to a mental hospital.
I was told about the approach the center’s director had, about using art to give these people a space to put their guts out there, and be themselves. And the pieces were phenomenal. Phenomenal! And it was healing for them, just to be able to do that. And some of these patients went back into society and became famous artists, and had their work displayed in museum[ gallerie]s.
So I knew art could be healing, and rehabilitation is big in the U.S. And I was thinking – what happened to dance as art? As a young woman, I had been losing my hair, and I didn’t have confidence, so I turned to dance. I’m a classical Indian dancer. My dance teacher basically helped me overcome my low self-esteem, and gave me confidence. I am who I am because of the foundation she gave me through art. I was able to vent all my anger and frustration, and it just calmed me down.
So I knew dance was a healing process, but I didn’t know how…So I googled “art as dance”, “art as a healing vehicle”, and read many research papers, just to get a sense of what was out there. It was a good topic, and I just wanted to manifest it in a documentary.
Aun Qi: So how did you discover Susan Slotnick and the Figures in Flight Released program?
Figures in Flight Released dancers [front to back] Ray Britto, Andre Noel, Felix Machado, David Montalvo, and Jaren Wootan rehearsing a piece entitled Welcome to the World at Dance Art New York, New York City, February 9, 2014. Photo © Natalie Ivis
Indrani: I came across an article that Susan Slotnick wrote about the famous “Thriller” piece that some Filipino inmates [had] danced in, and how it had violated human rights by forcing inmates to dance. Apart from that viral video, not many people know that in the U.S., rehabilitation through the arts, painting, theatre, poetry and dance is actually very big. They get federal funding to do these programs in prisons.
So Susan wrote very extensively about all that. And she wrote about how her program at Woodbourne Correctional Facility was the only successful program and the only existing dance program in North America. To a lot of people’s surprise, the program had been very successful. From that very minute, I knew – this is my girl, I have to get in touch with her no matter how!
So I started looking for her. In May 2013, I started contacting the organization that oversees the national program, Rehabilitation through the Arts (RTA). Someone else was already doing a documentary about the theatre program in Sing Sing prison, and they were not open to the idea of me coming in. Moreover, I was a student. I was turned down like that [snaps her fingers].
Susan’s also a very private person, so I didn’t find anything much on her. But then I found her on Facebook! And I messaged her, and she said, “Well, you’re a Malaysian, you’re a student, I don’t know what you want to do, I don’t want my men to be exploited… Why don’t you come over and we’ll talk.” So I took the bus all the way to New Paltz, which was three hours away, and met her.
Aun Qi: Did you find it a challenge to win Susan’s trust to film her and the released inmates?
Indrani: It took me a while to convince Susan to let me film her. She’s a very strong character. But, long story short, I just told her, “You have to trust me, Susan, to do what I do best, which is tell a story. And if you like it, you can get a copy; if not, it’ll just be a student project.”
When Susan allowed me to film her, I wouldn’t say she trusted me yet; but she allowed me to film her, because I’m a young woman trying to do my job, and she believes in the power of youth. She’s a nurturer. Actually, she’s writing her memoirs now, and she wrote about my encounter with her in the book. She thought I was stalking her at first, because we didn’t have any mutual friends in common on Facebook but I messaged her anyway!
She wasn’t sure if I would understand her as a 68-year-old Jewish woman, having done this work all her life. Whether I could grasp that essence, you know? She never imagined that an Malaysian-Indian girl, in her young thirties, who’d never been to the United States before, could come and just do a story and get her.
I also had to be very firm with her, because she likes to have everything under control. She was always telling me what to do when I was filming. I think that’s because she’s older and she’s a teacher…so I had to tell her to trust me, and just relax.
Around Christmas last year, I sent [her] the link to the video. And when she saw the video, my relationship with her changed. She could not believe that I [had] captured her for who she really was. She kept asking me, “How did you do that? How did you get it?” And every time we go for a film festival, that’s what she talks about.
Aun Qi: Tell us about your next film, The Incarcerated Rhythm.
Indrani: So The Game Changer talks about the Figures in Flight Released program. It also introduces the released inmates who are a part of that program.
In The Incarcerated Rhythm, the question is—what’s life after dance? Dance was a big thing. It brought the inmates closer to society. It gave them purpose, confidence, and a support group. Dance helped other people accept them, because they weren’t “formerly incarcerated men” anymore; they were dancers.
When these guys perform, they receive a standing ovation every single time. Dance gave them a new identity as…artist[s]. It gave society a context to accept them. But when you’re not dancing, who are you in the world? How are you behaving in the world? How do you function as an artist and former prisoner in society?
The Incarcerated Rhythm focuses on life after prison. The opening piece will be a dance, and then the film will ask each of the former inmates, “What are the challenges for you?” They’re all in their forties, and life is very different from when they first went into prison. How are they coping with this change?
So I just want to capture the challenges that these men are going through. That’s what The Incarcerated Rhythm is about. It’s about the rhythm that has been incarcerated for too long, like a bird in a cage, and is now out and about.
Aun Qi: Do you see potential for a similar dance rehabilitation program in Malaysia?
Indrani: I see potential around the world! Not just in Malaysia. I think the whole world should adopt such a program.
The re-entry rate in the U.S. for prisoners who have gone through good rehabilitation programs is very low. So I believe that in Malaysia, it’s high time for us to do proper rehabilitation programs for prisoners. We have to stop treating prisoners as prisoners, and treat them as members of society. We need to give them opportunities to learn, to grow, and [we need to] give the arts its due respect and emphasis.
In Malaysia, there’s not enough emphasis given to the arts, the environment, [and] community development as a whole. In the U.S., there is a strong sense of community ownership. They look at prisoners as people who will come back to [re]join society…. If you don’t fix it inside, the prisoners are going to come out and pose a threat, and just go back into prison again. Good rehabilitation programs are needed to help them grow, to help them integrate into society.
Huge emotional and psychological changes happen when you dance. You know, when you perform in front of hundreds of people, and they clap and tell you, “Wow, what a beautiful piece you just performed!”, you’ve created something using your own body, with something you weren’t satisfied with before. You and your body and your imperfect self just created something beautiful that people appreciated. That is healing. That does something to your psyche. Trust me.
Indrani Kopal is an award-winning Malaysian independent documentary filmmaker. More
To contact Indrani Kopal:
Koh Aun Qi is an Honours graduate in Government and International Relations from Sydney University. More
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