CIFF 2021: ‘When I’m Her’ Reclaims Art Through Joy and Radical Self-Love

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When Im Her

Michael Cusumano first forayed into the world of professional ballet as a child prodigy, fixated on perfection and with the ambition to join the ranks of the most competitive ballet dancers in the world. While he would achieve this goal, as the youngest male dancer to ever join the American Ballet Theatre, his drive would come at a steep price. In When I’m Her, director Emily Schuman intimately guides us through Cusumano’s struggles and introduces us to the mysterious, warm force that is Madame Olga. 

The Cleveland International Film Festival as always strived to promote artistically and culturally significant film arts, focused on pieces that enrich. When I’m Her is part of CIFF’s Outlook Shorts program for the 2021 virtual film festival. In celebration of an inclusive human experience, When I’m Her fully embodies CIFF’s vision for education through an embrace of the arts. 

From the very first moments of When I’m Her, Schuman establishes the film as a portrait of softness in the face of rigidity. Madame Olga, a character created by Michael Cusumano, is a vibrant and colorful fixture against the grey of the city and the perceived formality of the ballet spaces she enters. We’re conditioned to view ballet through this scope of perfection and hard, clean lines of beauty. Madame Olga acts in direct opposition to this.

Her presence in the studio is vivacious and unrefined, earthy and gentle. As Cusumano reflects in voiceover on how a teacher like Madame Olga may have changed his life, the audience watches Olga instruct her students gently through a ballet combination… but emphasizes that dancing is for love. This is the beautiful thesis statement of When I’m Her.

In its purest form, art is meant to be an expression of joy and a celebration of the body and human creativity. In explorations of his past, Cusumano reflects on how he lost the joy of dancing in the pursuit of perfection and career ambition. Contained within this dancer is the struggle of where artistic pursuit meets love. In his case, it represents the fractures that can be created between the two when pressure forces joy and acceptance into defeat. 

The character of Madame Olga rises like a phoenix from Cusumano’s talent and self-love, out of the ashes of the career he left behind. In this way, Madame Olga is the greatest steward of art that one can imagine for she preserves joy and protects the artist so that the art may continue to thrive. 

Schuman manages in a brief 15-minute runtime to capture decades of vulnerability and to illustrate how pressure always manages to create a diamond. As a subject, Olga/Cusumano are deeply moving and a tonic for the soul. It is a testament to both filmmaker and performer that so quickly viewers are able to find a home with a friendly stranger.

When I’m Her is streamed at the Cleveland International Film Festival April 7 through April 20, 2021. Following its CIFF run, the documentary short will be featured at the OUTShine Miami Film Festival prior to its June 2021 release on PBS Voices. 

 

When I’m Her
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    Rating - 8/10
8/10

TL;DR

Schuman manages in a brief 15-minute runtime to capture decades of vulnerability and to illustrate how pressure always manages to create a diamond. As a subject, Olga/Cusumano are deeply moving and a tonic for the soul. It is a testament to both filmmaker and performer that so quickly viewers are able to find a home with a friendly stranger.