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2 filmmakers capture a young Nigerian ballet dancer's journey in 'Madu'

(SOUNDBITE OF RAINFALL)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

In the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was captivated by a viral video from Nigeria. In a concrete courtyard, a slim 11-year-old boy in a black tank top and multicolored shorts twirls and leaps gracefully in the pouring rain. Anthony Madu was doing what he loves most, dancing ballet. The video attracted the attention of Elmhurst Ballet School, a prestigious academy in Birmingham, England, which offered Anthony a scholarship. The story also captivated two filmmakers who followed Anthony's journey for a documentary called "Madu," out today on Disney+.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MADU")

ANTHONY MADU: People think that it's not for boys. It's my dream and I have to follow it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's something that one has to embrace, accept, appreciate.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi, Mrs. Madu. We wanted to talk to you about Anthony, your son. He had so much raw talent that we are interested in at the school. You must be very proud.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm very proud of him.

MADU: I can't believe that I'm going to be schooling in England for seven years.

ELLIOTT: I spoke to Madu, who's now 14, and the film's directors, Matt Ogens and Kachi Benson. I began by asking Madu what inspired him to learn ballet.

MADU: It kind of, like, all started when I was 5. I loved moving and dancing. And I told my mom that I wanted to dance, but at that time there wasn't any dance school around. After that, my mom found a ballet school that I could go to, and I started. Yeah.

ELLIOTT: Director Matt Ogens, how did you find the story?

MATTHEW OGENS: I always lead with curiosity and love character-driven stories that have universal human themes that we can all relate to. One of our producers just sent me this clip of, at the time, this 11-year-old boy doing ballet in the rain. And that video, as we know, went viral. And I was just struck by his confidence and his passion. And I dug into the internet and the social media world and found him. And I think within a few days or maybe a week, I was on a FaceTime with him and his family, and that's how the journey began.

ELLIOTT: Anthony, the story of this film is you and your family's decision to leave your home in Nigeria and move to the U.K. in order to go to a ballet school. How did you come to decide that was the right thing to do?

MADU: Well, because dancing was always something I wanted to do. And getting offered a place at Elmhurst Ballet School meant that I was able to follow my dreams even further. And I had the support of my mom and my family as well.

ELLIOTT: So, Kachi, this is just a beautifully shot film. There are these lovely scenes of Anthony dancing. There are the street scenes in Nigeria. It almost feels more like a movie than it does a documentary. Was that an intended effect?

JOEL KACHI BENSON: Everything about this particular film was very intentional. There's not a lot of talking heads or interviews, even though we shot quite a bit. But by the time we got into post and we looked at all the footage, we realized that there was so much that was happening in the moment that we really didn't need to use any interviews as a crutch to propel the story forward.

ELLIOTT: Anthony, you talked about some difficult things at times in this film. You talked about being bullied in Nigeria for choosing to be a dancer, right? But it seems like you made some new close friendships once you got to England. How do you think your life changed after you started in the school in England?

MADU: My life changed in terms of being able to do what I want to do without having other people, like, tease me about it, because at Elmhurst Ballet School, we've got - like, everyone shares the same dreams and passion. We all just kind of, like, pretty much work together and not tease other people about it and stuff. And I think that has been a really, really good change for me.

ELLIOTT: There's a scene in the film I want to talk a little bit about that I found to be very lovely. It's where you go to see "The Nutcracker," and you're able to speak with a principal dancer afterward.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MADU")

UNIDENTIFIED DANCER: Come out here, let's get center stage.

MADU: Whoa.

UNIDENTIFIED DANCER: So when you're at school and you're performing and your teachers are telling you to look out and beyond, imagine this, yeah?

MADU: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED DANCER: Imagine this.

ELLIOTT: What was that moment like for you?

MADU: It was great because being onstage with a principal ballet dancer, it isn't something that happens all the time. And seeing what it feels like being onstage, dancing with a lot of people, it felt amazing.

ELLIOTT: Matt and Kachi, you know, Anthony is an adolescent. That's a really difficult time in life. Did you all have conversations about, you know, following him and being sensitive that he was young and going to be alone and away from his family? I mean, how did you sort of address that?

BENSON: We took our time to be very sensitive to Anthony's emotions, right? You know, there would be some times where maybe, you know, he doesn't feel like speaking or he doesn't feel like - and we know when to pull back and sit this one out. And there was also a lot of, after filming, conversations. So in the heat of the moment, we've captured it. But, you know, we would always catch up afterwards and try to get to understand, OK, what's going on? How are you feeling? Is everything OK? But I think in the end, we respected, you know, his emotions, the boundaries that were set and worked within those boundaries to still create something that, you know, we have all come to see that is beautiful and tells an inspiring story.

ELLIOTT: Anthony, what are you doing now? How have your dreams for the future changed since you arrived in England?

MADU: So now I'm still dancing. I'm still at Elmhurst Ballet School. But I just kind of, like, want to keep improving on my dance and every other part of my life and get better at a lot of things and find new things. Yeah.

ELLIOTT: Well, the documentary is called "Madu" and it's out on Disney+ now. It features Anthony Madu, directed by Matt Ogens and Kachi Benson. Thanks to all three of you for talking with us.

MADU: Thank you.

OGENS: Thanks for having us.

BENSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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