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Director Amanda Lipitz finds her ‘Step’ in new documentary

Director Amanda Lipitz finds her ‘Step’ in new documentary

Broadway producer and first-time documentary feature filmmaker, director, and producer Amanda Lipitz has made her way from the Sundance Film Festival to a 200 theater opening of her passion project, Step.

The Baltimore native captured an inspirational story about three young women from the inner-city of Baltimore, all with various backgrounds, who attend the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW) and are members of the school’s Step team. The unique all-female school with a 100% graduation rate teaches girls so much more than the three ‘R’s’---they learn the skills necessary for success in life.

Lipitz sat down with me recently to talk about this inspiring and empowering new film, opening August 4th in select cities.

Pamela Powell (PP):  How did you come across this type of school, the Step team, and these three remarkable high school seniors?

Amanda Lipitz (AL): This is my first feature that I directed and produced. On the side of my Broadway career, I was making shorts about first generation students going to college and girls’ education. I met (BLSYW Director of College Counseling) Paula Dofat  in a totally separate short.  She was working at these schools in NY called the Young Women’s Leadership schools which I became very involved with [and] they have a 100% graduation rate.  My mom was born and raised in Baltimore and she’s an activist and educator there. We were talking about what we could do to improve the lives of young people in Baltimore and when you have a conversation like that, it begins and ends with education.  I suggested to her that she replicate that model in Baltimore and she did. (Chuckles) And she recruited her daughter to make films for her!  

PP:  It sounds like your mother was quite an inspiration to you.

AL:  Obviously, this movie is so much about mothers and daughters and who your mother is.  Certainly, that goes to the very nucleus of the film and the school and my partnership with my mom.  My mom, from the time I was a little girl, showed me by example that you have to use whatever talent you have to make the world a better place.  I remember being a little girl, my mother started a domestic violence program in Baltimore and...the hotline being run out of our house, around our dining room table.  My mom and all of her friends with phones, sending women to safe houses.  I was raised by a mother and father that very much cared about Baltimore...and everyone around them even if they didn’t look like them.  I remember the day I suggested my mom look at these schools...her phone call to me afterwards and how  inspired she sounded and it inspired me!  I believe in signs.  I just walked in JFK Airport and a sign [that] said ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step.’  I remember my  very first step on this and that was telling mom you should go look at these cool schools.  

PP:  Tell me about the girls in the film. 

AL: I met [Blessin, Cori, and Tayla] when they were in the 6th grade...I would come to their school 5 or 6 times a year with cameras.   I would also come a lot of times without cameras because it was a huge part of my family’s life. I didn’t know Step...but I knew that Blessin had started the team.... and one day, Blessin said to me, ‘Next time you come to school with cameras, you need to come film the Step Team.’  It has a rich history...coming from the mines of Africa... I didn’t know all of that rich history, but I knew musicals.   When I walked in and saw them Stepping, to me, it was like a musical.  Characters can’t speak...so they sing to express their fears...hopes and dreams and that’s what these young women were doing with Step.  

PP:  How did you decide to focus the film on those three particular girls as there are many girls on the team?

AL:  Blessin was the captain of the team [and] she founded the team. I was really close with her.  When I had heard that Cori was on the Step team, I was in shock because...she was always very mild mannered and kind of shy, but always number 1 in the class, super brilliant.  Tayla also didn’t join till later but Tayla...was always so fierce on the Step team...and her mother was always standing on the sidelines in a bulletproof vest.  But there were lots of other girls on the team that I followed in different ways.  First of all ,my editor, Penelope Faulk did an incredible job.  She really helped me zero in on  not following 8 different girls and really focusing on three as being a magic number because it would have been too confusing.  I have so many amazing story lines of different girls and I do believe if I picked three other girls it would be just as powerful.

PP:  Has this experience or the film changed you personally in any way?

AL: These young women...and their teachers and their mothers have taught me so much about what it means to come together with a group of powerful women.  And that when you stick together and you don’t let people divide you, anything is possible.  I’m a mother to two little girls, and I’ve learned a lot about coaching them and guiding them and how to make powerful women.  How to make young women and young girls who grow up to change the world.

PP:  I have to say, this film had me on the edge of my seat with the competition that takes place---it’s reality, not a Hollywood story!  What were your thoughts while you were filming the competition?

AL:   Either way it was going to be a win.  It was going to 

teach them a life lesson so that’s why ‘Step is life.’  We were standing in the wings...we all wanted them to win, [but] I did believe the winning was going to come when they got their diplomas and not if they got a championship trophy at a Step competition.  

Step opens on 200 screens nationwide on August 4th.  For more information about where to see it and how to book groups of 20 or more, go to http://foxsearchlight.powio.com/us/step/.  

© Pamela Powell (7/31/17) FF2 Media

Featured photo: Amanda Liptiz with Cori Grainger

Photos: Stills from Step

Photo Credits: NAYSA REAMES + Fox Searchlight

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