Filmmakers have the unique ability to invite their audience to experience what it’s like to be in situations that they wouldn’t normally have access to. With this, the medium can be especially important in its potential to convey events that are difficult to express with words. Often times, these are stories of trauma and the lasting effects that they have on lives. Such is the case with this week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “Cheer Up Baby” from director, Adinah Dancyger. The film, that premiered at Sundance Film Festival this year, captures the story of a young woman being sexually assaulted by a stranger on a New York City subway and the psychological ramifications that follow. With a unique approach to visuals, sound and pacing, Dancyger is able to place the viewer into the life of the film’s protagonist, Anna, played by India Menuez, and palpably communicate the damage that she feels from the abuse and the difficulties that come with approaching life afterwards.
“Cheer Up Baby” is based on a personal story of Dancyger’s while growing up in New York City. She describes making the film as a way to contribute to the conversation about sexual assault and to “better understand some questions still lingering in [her] brain and to communicate a feeling that so many other people have felt [and still] feel.” To do so, Dancyger juxtaposes starkly different experiences with touch. The film opens on, and is structured by, a dance exercise called contact improvisation in which dancers use each other’s body weight to improvise movements with one another. Through tightly framed shots and augmented audio that emphasizes breath, we are able to feel the same calmness and consensual trust that Anna and her dance partner share with one another as they roll from one movement to the next. These visual and audio choices are then echoed throughout the film during pivotal moments. When we see Anna asleep on the subway and suddenly awoken by a stranger groping her legs, the tightness of the frame no longer feels intimate and the heightened breathing creates a terrifying effect. Now, the viewer shares in the fear of the event as time seems to stand still and the inability to see the entirety of her assaulter adds to the confusion. Later, as Anna meets up with a romantic interest at a rock show, the same cropped visuals and magnified audio reminds us of her trauma and translates how it feels to not be able to shake the connected feelings.
When asked about these stylistic decisions, Dancyger, who edited “Cheer Up Baby” along with writing and directing, described them as an effort to create a film that feels like you “can touch it, just something visceral and constantly in motion.” In doing so, Dancyger connects with her audience in a way the feels unique for a short film. “Cheer Up Baby” finds success through warping a viewer’s sensory perception, just as traumatic events do to their victims.
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