Original-Cin Q&A: At Hot Docs, how Ingrid Veninger's Masters thesis uncovered unsung Cuban dance phenoms

If, after directing eight Canadian feature films, you decide to make your first documentary, you might as well get credit for it. Course credit, that is.

Ingrid Veninger (Porcupine Lake, Modra) has had plenty of TIFF appearances, but she’s making her Hot Docs debut with The World or Nothing, 11 days in the life of Rubert and Rubildo, identical twin dancers from Cuba, living hand-to-mouth at a cousin’s apartment, trying to launch a hip-hop career in Barcelona via YouTube videos under the name “Sencation Gamela.”

The movie is a bittersweet look at a passionate quest for stardom. It’s also her thesis in the filmmaking Masters program at York University. 

Rubert and Rubildo keep up appearances

Rubert and Rubildo keep up appearances

Rubert and Rubildo, a.k.a. Sensacion Gamela

Rubert and Rubildo, a.k.a. Sensacion Gamela

“I was encouraged to make a film in a different way than I’d ever done before,” she says. “That’s what made me think of docs. No matter how improvised my previous films look, they’ve always been scripted and the dialogue has been written. Whether it’s my family or experienced actors or first time actors, ultimately, I’m saying, ‘Say this or say that.’”

She’d had the twins in her mind ever since encountering them at a dance show at a Cuban resort. With a team of two (herself and her partner John Switzer on sound) and a local cinematographer, she set out to make her first documentary.

Original-Cin’s Jim Slotek talked to Veninger about The World or Nothing.

ORIGINAL-CIN: So how did you meet these guys? 

INGRID VENINGER: “(In December 2015), John and I hadn’t a holiday in 10 years. So, it was like, we’ve got to go somewhere warm. There was an all-inclusive resort in Holguin. On New Year’s Eve, we saw a big huge dance show with a lot of different dancers. And the twins had a solo to Usher’s Yeah, and they knocked me out. 

“They were amazing, they were in unison, they were so charismatic in their dancing and their own style. They just radiated stardom off the stage.

“And I thought, ‘How’s that working in Cuba?’ I’m thinking they want to go big, they want to be on a big stage.

“Everyone in Cuba dances. It’s like they’re born and start dancing. Music and dance is such an important part of their culture.

“Later I learned these guys have been dancing since the age of five, always doing shows for the family. So, I was curious about their ambition and careers and their family and their dance life.

“But I didn’t speak to them because I knew when I was coming back in January, all of 2016 was going to be (the acclaimed coming-of-age story) Porcupine Lake. I had to finish writing that script, apply for money, shoot in summer of 2016…


“I thought well, we all see people who draw our attention for reasons we don’t quite understand, but we don’t see them and forget about them, and then maybe if we see them again, we’re like, ‘Oh, it’s meant to be.’”

OC: So when did you see them again? 

VENINGER: “(After the Masters thesis idea) we went back to Cuba on New Year’s Eve 2017, with the sole purpose of trying to sit down with these guys.

“And they weren’t there. We asked around for a couple of days and a dancer leads to someone else who leads to someone else, who gets them on the phone and I find out they’re in Havana. They were going to be there for two days before leaving on a big big Cuban dance tour, traveling to Germany.

“So, we arranged to meet in Havana, a 12-hour journey by car, and a two-hour meeting. I asked if they’d be interested in making a doc with me. I didn’t have a plan or story or script. We’d just begin with them waking up and starting their day and we’d spend two weeks together. And they agreed.”

“We were all set to go to Cuba, and were told they had family in Barcelona and had settled there. So we shot in Barcelona for 11 days in May, exactly a year ago.”

OC: I have to say, this is kind of a bittersweet movie. They’re sleeping on couches, measuring their fame in increments of hundreds of YouTube views. And at 29, they’re entering what would be maybe the last third of a physically demanding career in dance.

VENINGER: “Yeah, it is bittersweet. They’re 29 but they have the spirit. There’s an innocence and wisdom they carry, you feel that float between them. They’re very selective and cautious and guarded. And driven and determined and disciplined but also vulnerable and innocent and receptive and trusting.

“They’re working at it every single day in a way they didn’t have the opportunity to do before. And that way is social media. And it’s a tough way, it’s a slog. 

“But they’re determined. I was looking at their YouTube two days ago. And in the last two or three months, they posted 22 new music videos. It’s their original music, they shoot it, they write it, they record it, they sing, they play percussion. They do it with very limited resources, which I can relate to - with a camera and editing software on their laptop.”

OC: None of which guarantees they’ll ever become famous.

VENINGER: “That’s 100% true. So, what is it to want success? And what is the price of that? We see people on Instagram who reach a certain number of followers, then sponsors rally and they’re paid to post. They get deals, now they wear Adidas. It’s weird.

“But for them, it’s kind of inspiring and heartening how much pleasure and joy they take from every little thing. That moment on television in the film (one of their videos is shown on a local music program). 

“You see them being emotional and how happy their family is for them. It was a few seconds and our camera missed it. By the time we get into the room it’s gone

“But for them, it’s a little crack that could potentially lead to something. Maybe it’ll be the same for a year. Then maybe this film will lead to someone seeing them and it’ll become another little thing, which leads them to another spiral upwards.

“But I think they’re in it for life. I’m curious to see what’s going to happen to them when they’re 40, 50, 60.”

OC: You could do a Michael Apted (the director of the Seven-Up series which followed Brit children through adulthood and middle age at seven year intervals).

VENINGER: “Yeah! In 10 years when they’re 39. I should do that!”

OC: So, what if they do get seen by someone powerful, and move to Los Angeles. How would they change? What if somebody says, “This is good. But you’ve also got to do this, this and this?”

VENINGER: “Oh, how often do we see that? The package deal. One thing we know for sure, they’re never going to leave each other. There’s power in their dualism.

“When I look on Facebook, I see 35 shares for every post I’ve been putting up with respect to Hot Docs. I look it up and it’s all them. They just share it, they’re so happy and excited and I know they’re happy and enthusiastic about meeting this audience. (The twins will appear via Skype at the film’s first two screenings).

“They’re going to be doing on the big screen, and that’s blowing my mind. There’ll be a Spanish translator, and I think they have a dance prepared. I’m in constant communication with them. Part of this doc was the collaboration, and if there was anything they didn’t want in the film, it would be out.”

OC: I’m trying to imagine them suddenly making millions of dollars.

VENINGER: “Or even thousands of Euros so they could pay their bills. I think that a designer should scoop them as models. We should be seeing them on a runway. They should have a recording contract. 

“I know Beyonce’s got her Les Twins who we saw on her Homecoming Netflix special. But these guys are just as talented and awesome and they belong on the big stage. I absolutely have faith in them.

Being a DIY girl, I see them as self-made performers that have their hearts in a really strong place and are marathon runners.”

The World Or Nothing screens at Hot Docs, Sat, Apr 27, 8:45 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3; Sun, Apr 28, 1:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Thur, May 2, 3 pm, Hart House Theatre.