Only connect: FilmScene’s Filmmaker Spotlight showcases ‘Last Chance Tango’

Filmmaker Spotlight: Last Chance Tango w/ director Sonja Strathearn

FilmScene—Ped Mall — Monday, Feb. 17 at 6 p.m.

Restaurant scene: Daniel and Sarah meet to tell their stories and see tango performance for first time.– Jacob Strathearn

On Monday, Feb. 17 at 6 p.m., FilmScene at the Ped Mall will screen Sonja Strathearn’s feature film Last Chance Tango (2019) as part of their Filmmaker Spotlight series. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Strathearn. More information about the film and her work can be found at her website.

A photograph. Being in the right place at the right time. A chance interaction.

These are the ingredients that broker one woman’s discovery that she has a twin sister and was adopted. Sarah crosses paths with Daniel, whose deceased wife Jen brings them together. As they sit in a coffee shop so Sarah can learn more about the sister she never knew she had, the two observe a couple dancing the tango.

Moved by the music and the bodies in motion, Daniel pleads with Sarah to take tango lessons with him, “no strings attached.” After gazing at the dancers a minute longer, Sarah acquiesces. What follows is a story about how to get close, not just physically, but emotionally as well.

Strathearn originally did not make moving image work.

“Two years ago, the idea of making a film came to me when I was writing a biography about my great grandmother. …With a small crew of family and friends and Kickstarter crowdfunding money to hire others and fund postproduction, I made Something Better in 2018, a story about my ancestor’s immigration from England to Australia in the 1880s, and the film premiered in Australia a few months ago.”

With her first film production under her belt, Strathearn turned to Last Chance Tango, another narrative that deals with belonging, family, connection and love.

When Daniel calls to reserve his first lesson with Sarah he asks if the Milonguero style of tango “brings people together.”

“Yes,” the instructor assures him, “it’s all about the connection.”

That sentiment is at the heart of this film and Strathearn’s engagement with the dance community in Iowa, where the film was shot.

Sonja Strathearn dancing tango in Houston at a milonga. — to Alejandro Almanza

“Tango has been a passion of mine for over a decade, ever since I saw a tango show in Houston, Texas and fell instantly in love,” says Strathearn. “I’ll never forget the first time I danced with a good leader who danced in ‘close embrace’ in the milonguero style. There was such an emotional connection, and he could lead me to do things I had never been taught.”

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One can see Strathearn‘s passion for the dance, as there’s a concerted effort in the film to linger over the lessons, learning the moves and mastering the rhythms. Extras in the film are afforded ample screen time so the audience can take in their mastery of the moves, not just the main characters in the nascent stages of learning.

But Strathearn admits that since “tango is an improvisational dance,” filming around it could pose a challenge since she “couldn’t choreograph in pre-production.”

“I had to trust,” she elaborates, “that we could make the dancing work in the edit if we took enough footage.”

Joseph Thorin as Daniel Burke in ‘Last Chance Tango’ — Jacob Strathearn

The tango instructor in the film, Joan Bishop, commands the screen. Her fluidity through her space and her ease in front of the camera make her an arresting supporting actor. In a fun piece of trivia, Strathearn says that Bishop, who is renowned as a dancer in Texas, taught Strathearn before agreeing to appear in the film, traveling all the way from Houston to Iowa. It really does seem like this film brings people together, both on-screen and off.

“I think Iowa City is a special place, abundant in creativity. FilmScene’s support of emerging independent filmmakers with Filmmaker Spotlight is such a gem in our unique small city,” Strathearn says, reflecting on community. Audiences can come together on Feb. 17 to share in this creative connection with a filmmaker who documents and celebrates that artistic abundance.