Dancing Through Trauma

Filmmaker Severine Reisp helps women find strength after abuse

| 25 Apr 2022 | 03:45

When ballerina Severine Reisp began her studies at Sarah Lawrence, she had a professor who introduced her to the art of filmmaking. “She said, ‘A lot of dancers are actually great directors because they can think visually.’” This led the German native — who came to New York at 19 to train with the Joffrey Ballet — to change the course of her career and ultimately earn both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in film.

In her new short, “Deceive,” Amira, played by Dandara Veiga — a principal dancer with Ballet Hispánico — moves to New York from Brazil to pursue ballet. While browsing books in McNally Jackson, she meets a CEO of a venture capital firm, and they start dating until one of their dates ends in a hotel room, where she is sexually abused by him.

Throughout the 17-minute piece, there are very few words, just the two main characters against the backdrop of the city and Veiga solemnly and powerfully dancing in the rain alone to deal with her emotions in the aftermath of the trauma. “I chose dance and very little dialogue to move the story forward because I feel like dance can very powerfully capture strong emotions and perhaps even confront these difficult topics,” Reisp explained.

At the start of the film, the words, “Based on a true story that happens every day” appear on the screen, and when asked if the film is based on her life, she said, “It’s certainly inspired by things that I experienced myself and also things that female friends of mine have experienced.”

You said that this is about a woman reclaiming her voice, so I thought it was interesting there weren’t many words. Why did you make that choice artistically?

Because I wanted to show the story from her perspective and I felt that words can sometimes be distracting and I really wanted to have the focus on the emotions of the main character. So that we can feel with her and experience what she’s going through and really only use voice when it’s absolutely necessary, like when we hear her thoughts to understand a little bit more of her background. The actress also has such strong expressions, that I decided ... we actually had a little bit of dialogue when we shot this film ... but I took all of this out because I felt like it was distracting.

What do you want viewers to understand about sexual abuse?

I want them to understand that predators oftentimes choose very vulnerable people or younger women. I also hope that it will make survivors feel less alone, because it’s also true that actually only 10 percent of rapes are committed by strangers, whereas 90 percent of rapes and sexual abuse cases are committed by someone the survivor has previously trusted or even loved. So it’s not always this black-and-white situation, there’s a lot of grey area. And I also want to show that these types of sexual and emotional abuse cases can happen to everyone and that the victim is actually never to blame.

You are a dancer yourself. How did you make the change to go into film?

I actually deferred my place at college for a few years only to focus on my dance career. But I always knew that I wanted to go back to college and that I had other interests. And then when I started at Sarah Lawrence, I had this really great professor who got me into filmmaking. To her, directing was like choreography on screen. I didn’t have a lot of experience in filmmaking up to then, and I became really interested and fascinated by film as a medium and it’s definitely true, you have to be able to visualize things in your mind, essentially that’s what you’re doing as a dancer all the time. And now, instead of movement, you’re doing it with film and storyboards in your head. And from then on, I was intrigued, and I knew this is what I wanted to do and I did my bachelor’s and master’s degree in film.

What feedback have you gotten from women who have seen it?

It depends. A lot of women can relate to this. They say, “Yes, we don’t see this so often on screen.’” And that’s why I think it’s important to show it because a lot of women are afraid to actually come forward or they blame themselves. And also something that I heard from a lot of women is that they can relate to this freeze response. In my movie, the main character is like, “Dance is my way to escape reality.” But it’s actually something that really happens to someone that experiences trauma. I don’t know if you’ve seen the documentary about the [Jeffrey] Epstein survivors, but they said something really similar. They were like, “When that happened to me, my body escaped the room,” and they almost weren’t able to remember what happened to them because in that moment they froze and imagined to be in a different scenario.

You are now making this into a feature film.

Yes, the script is ready and this is supposed to be turned into a 120-minute feature film where we will learn more about Amira’s family, how she grew up. And how the person that manipulated her, what is his backstory, does he do this to other women as well? All of this will come to light in the feature film and then we will also see more of how she deals with her abuse after what happened to her and what she decides to do with her life afterwards.