Interview: The Writer/Director of the Dazzling New Documentary, "Step"

08/04/2017 11:21 pm ET

Audiences are cheering for “Step,” the documentary about a team of girls from a Baltimore school who compete in the jubilant precision world of step, which has deep roots in the African and African-American culture. They are members of the first graduating class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, which is committed to making sure that all of the students are accepted to college, attend, and graduate from college as well. The documentary follows the team, especially three of the seniors, as the team attends competition and as its members apply to college and wait to hear whether they have been accepted.

Director Amanda Lipitz has a background in producing Broadway musicals, which helped her bring a dynamism and energy to filming the girls’ performances. But it her connection to the girls and the unwavering dedication of their family and the school over six years that gives the film the emotional power that inspired an Instagram rave from former First Lady Michelle Obama.

In an interview, Lipitz talked about getting the trust of the girls, what she learned about filming the performances, and how the school starts getting the girls committed to going to college in 6th grade.

How did you first got involved with these girls?

I’m a Broadway producer in my other life and on the side I was making shorts about first generation students going to college and girls education and working with a group of schools in New York called the Young Women’s Leadership Schools. They are all-girls public schools primarily. They have a hundred percent graduation rate. I was just so inspired by what they were doing and the special sass they were putting into young women.

I was born and raised in Baltimore; my mom was born and raised in Baltimore and she was an educator and activist there for women and girls my whole life. I suggested she might want to look at these schools and possibly replicate them in Baltimore and she did and she recruited me to make films for her.

So I met these young women when they were in the sixth grade. I wasn’t even thinking about a documentary. I just came in to their school five or six times a year with cameras and made these films to promote the school and this founding class. I fell in love with these girls. When they were in the eighth grade I first heard about the step team. I didn’t know about the rich history of step coming from the mines in Africa and now being a collegiate sport in North America. But I knew musicals, so when I walked in and saw them stepping it was just like when someone sings in a musical. They just have to sing; they have to get it all out. And that’s what these girls were doing with step. They are using their whole bodies as an instrument and using their voices to get out a message. And it is about sisterhood, leadership, integrity, and academics because you had to have a certain GPA to stay on the team.

I really wanted in the end for it to feel like a team that you knew even if you didn’t know the names of the other girls. None of it would’ve happened if all of them hadn’t been doing it together.

What is it that makes this school different? Why does it work?

In the sixth grade they take these girls to a college campus, and they say, “This is what you have to do to get into college. This is how much college costs and this is what you have to do to get someone to pay for you to go to college. You have to study hard, you have to do extracurriculars, you have to be good to your teachers because they write your recommendations. If you are in trouble you have to ask someone for help and you can’t wait to the last minute or it won’t happen.” Literally I’ve seen them make little six graders close their eyes and imagine that they are a little taller, their hair a little longer, maybe they just went shopping for their prom dress and this was when there were mailboxes and things came in the mail and you walk to your mailbox, open it up and there is a letter from your dream school with sixty thousand dollar scholarship and you call your grandmother, you call your mother. And you see these little eleven year olds with tears rolling down their faces because they really believe.

The school supports them all the way. It’s all about social and emotional health. The college counselor is there to be a college counselor, the guidance counselor is there to be a guidance counselor and then they have five other people supporting that guidance counselor. They have washers and dryers in the basement to wash clothes for kids who don’t have clean clothes. There is a school nurse. Everything is there at these schools to support the girls, not just academically.

How did you get the confidence of the families? You were able to film some very private moments.

I’ve known them since they were eleven years old. I put in a lot time off camera. They saw footage of me going into other people’s homes and those people being open with me and they cried when they saw my films. More than anything I was from Baltimore. We all wanted to change the conversation about Baltimore.

And I had rules around the filming from the beginning. There were strict guidelines about filming in the school and there were also strict guidelines about filming with the girls. One of those was, they were minors and their families were entrusting them in my care and my crew’s care so they were transported, they were fed and they were safe. If that meant five Ubers taking five different girls home at the end of a shoot; that’s how it went, if it meant lunch for nineteen it was lunch for nineteen; dinner for nineteen. Even if they filmed with us for a few hours they were sent home with a meal so that was something we did across the board in every situation and it really served us well.

What did you do to make the step performances so electrifying?

Audio is a big part of it, making sure that the sound of the steps was really coming through and every strong clap beat. We treated those numbers as you would with a movie musical; really making them feel cinematic. I spent a whole year of ninth grade just filming them stepping, not getting into details of their lives. I just learned how to film step; that was my tutorial. You have to move with them, you have to be inside of it; that was the biggest thing I learned and also not to film them on a sound stage. They have to be in an environment that is natural for stepping.

You spent a lot of time with the girls and the teachers and administration of the school.

Yes; they are my family, all nineteen of them, I love them dearly. Coach G and Paula are my closest friends, we are all so close and what’s really nice is I don’t have to be a director anymore; someone else is in charge now so I just chill and be in the same boat with them.

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