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Many challenges overcome in local director’s latest film

Flagstaff Team

War, Covid, and a tight shooting window all presented production challenges for a North Shore filmmaker’s latest movie.
James Napier Robertson’s Joika tells the story of Joy Womack, an American dancer who won a contract with Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet, navigating her way through a world of pain and brutal competitiveness to become a prima ballerina at the company.
This week, the captivating story from the director of The Dark Horse comes to Takapuna. Napier Robertson (pictured on-set, above) will talk about the making of the film at a session on Sunday 9 June.
When he departed in 2022 for Poland, where the film was shot, Napier Robertson didn’t have a guaranteed way back into New Zealand as the borders were closed by Covid restrictions. Then Talia Ryder, who plays Womack in the film, came down with Covid, keeping her out of action for 10 of the 14 days set aside to learn the choreography. “I had some days when I’d show up and six of my head-of-department crew had Covid and were no longer able to work on the film.”
Napier Robertson, a former Takapuna Grammar student, said so much budget had to go towards Covid-related costs that filming was cut to 27 days, an extremely short window for a feature. This meant 12-hour shoots, six days a week in the Polish winter, in temperatures as low as minus-15 Celsius.
On top of this, Russia invaded Ukraine three weeks into filming, to the distress of the production’s many Russian and Ukrainian crew members, along with the Poles, who themselves feared invasion. “That added a whole other layer of difficulty,” Napier Robertson said. “It felt almost like every day it was a minor miracle that we got through another day without a catastrophe happening.”
He said he was drawn to Womack’s story as an opportunity to explore the question “How far is too far for pursuing your art or your craft?”
It’s a topic that has been explored in films such as Black Swan and Whiplash, but Joika’s point of difference is it tells a true story. Napier Robertson said he attempted as much as possible to “reflect this real person who at 15 years old moved to Russia without speaking almost a word of Russian, with no family and without knowing anyone there”.
His film showed the contrast between the beauty of ballet and the reality and hardships of trying to reach the highest levels within it.
Napier Robertson was first approached about doing the film while working on another movie which had production delays. He said he was vaguely familiar with the story so decided it would be a good idea to meet Womack in person. He was flown to Los Angeles and after spending three days with her was convinced to do the film. Womack herself choreographed the film’s ballet scenes.
The film also drew on the talent of Napier Robertson’s wife, Dana Lund, for its music. She also worked on The Dark Horse, winning a New Zealand Film and Television Award for her music. Joika’s post-production involved two Devonport residents, film editor Martin Brinkler and sound editor Nick Buckton.
Napier Robertson said he’s enjoyed seeing how the film has resonated with audiences and taking part in Q and A sessions. The 42-year-old is currently working on a television series about the cocaine trade in Sydney and writing the script for a new film.

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