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DANCE ME TO MY SONG: This Aint No Waltz

Leave all your preconceptions at home when you go to see Rolf de Heer’s Dance Me To My Song, a film that will wrench your heart and confront your head, says ANDREW L. URBAN in this story on the powerful film that was in Competition at the 1998 Cannes film festival.

What do you do when a man turns up and you fancy him but you are in a wheelchair and the person caring for you fancies him, too, and steals him from under your nose, the bitch, ‘cause she isn’t in a wheelchair. You try and steal him back, of course. These, more or less, are the words and thoughts in Heather Rose’s head that propelled the script for Dance Me To My Song, a film born out of real experiences by Rose herself, a woman with cerebral palsy, who speaks only through a voice synthesiser and is dependant on others for most of life’s functions.

This dance ain't no dainty waltz.

"writers use material from their own lives"

In the film, Heather Rose has become Julia – and she plays the role; the twice fancied man has become Eddie (John Brumpton), and the bitch of a carer has become Madelaine (Joey Kennedy). Eddie is possibly a little crooked, but there is much to him that’s likable; Madelaine is lonely and angry, selfish and angry, temperamental and sad. Co-writer and director Rolf de Heer is quick to point out, though, that the film is not a biography.

"Not at all; only in the sense that writers use material from their own lives. Madelaine is merely the collection of the worst qualities of the worst carers Heather’s ever had."

It could be seen as a dramatised documentary, since it is Rose herself playing Julia, and her physical or surface life is so intense and she is so obvioulsy handicapped. While he understands that response, de Heer draws a comparison with the first films that used black actors instead white actors in blackface. "I don’t know how it felt emotionally to an audience, I wasn’t there, but I think that is the equivalent."

The script was written by de Heer from a treatment by Rose and Frederick Stahl, and de Heer was propelled by a wish to see the story in cinematic form.

"I wanted to go behind the obvious"  Rolf de Heer

"I wanted to make the film and see it myself, to go on a journey with a drama that’s very different. We tend to see people with disabilities as disabled first and foremost; I wanted to go behind the obvious to the point that we no longer notice that disability anymore."

In pursuing this objective, de Heer aimed to distance Julia from Heather Rose, and he believes he’s done that. "I see the character of Julia up on the screen and the character of Julia is not at all like Heather. It’s a performance, not a recording."

He is also proud of the fact that half way through the film he perceives Julia quite differently to how he perceives her at the beginning: "She’s just Julia, no longer the disabled character any more than Madelaine is the character with brown hair or Eddie is the character with the muscular body."

Above all, though, de Heer is awed by Rose’s performance through the constraints of her disability.

"Being given the lead role meant so much to me" Heather Rose

Heather Rose came into contact with de Heer during the making of de Heer’s celebrated drama, Bad Boy Bubby, in which Rose had a tiny part. The experience jolted her: "I was hooked on movie making, but I didn’t know where to go."

Rose and Stahl embarked on a script, believing that a film about a woman like Rose could work; but it had to be a dramatic story, not another ‘disability’ film. For her birthday party, Rose invited de Heer, and they talked about the script, but de Heer refused to read it, not wanting to meddle in the process. It was sometime later that de Heer did get involved, and he suggested developing the script further. Rose’s confidence was boosted, but not as much as the next stage, when the reality of her playing Julia was upon her.

"Being given the lead role meant so much to me, to have Rolf and the others have that much belief in me was the first time in my life people were so supportive of me."

Dance Me To My Song was shot in the middle of 1997 in Adelaide, and is the second film on which de Heer has used binaural sound, which he pioneered on Bad Boy Bubby.

This requires two microphones instead of one, both on Rose and on the camera. "We used this because we get very close to her, we hear the intense breathing which is a critical part of her character. Heather doesn’t speak conventionally but we still want to catch her personality and her breathing is very present about her."

"a dense, dynamic sound with deep perspective"

Tony Clark’s camera is also equipped with twin microphones, and wherever it is pointing binaural sound is recorded. The sound recording was complicated, but the end result is a dense, dynamic sound with deep perspective, which lifts the dramatic effect, says de Heer.

In the end, the film is a devastating experience, draining and exciting all at once, because you feel you are seeing something unique and involved in something far more complex than most of the movies you ever see – and completely unexpected.

As de Heer, admits, "Some people will find the confronting."

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