An Advance Look at
“Venus and Serena”
With Visiting Filmmaker
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
A few years ago I saw a wonderful documentary about competing jump rope teams -- one suburban white, the other inner-city black.
Yes, roping jumping as a competitive sport.
As the film’s director Stephanie Johnes points out, “In the last 30 years jump roping has moved off the sidewalks and into the gym.” It’s no longer a kids’ game.
For “Doubletime,” Stephanie’s camera followed the training of the Bouncing Bulldogs of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and the Double Dutch Forces of Columbia, South Carolina, as they prepared for a big showdown at New York’s Apollo Theater.
“What I love and admire about kids who jump rope is their passion and commitment to a little known sport,” she elaborates. “They are doing what they love and don’t care what other people think. They love inventing new tricks, practicing with their friends, and wowing their peers with some fancy new combination.”
Now Stephanie Johnes is back … with a new sport. Tennis.
As cinematographer on a new documentary that’s straightforwardly titled “Venus and Serena,” she follows the Williams sisters as they train, juggle their demanding careers, deal with family issues, and wrestle with life-threatening illnesses. Directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Miller, the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Venus and Serena Williams are indeed sports phenoms. Trained by their parents Richard Williams and Oracine Price, both sisters have been ranked as World No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association. Venus is a seven-time Grand Slam title winner (singles), and Serena is a fifteen-time Grand Slam title winner (singles).
Professional rivals despite being very close, they have faced each other in eight Grand Slam singles finals. “They have the sweetest relationship,” observes Stephanie. “They are roommates and spend a lot of time together.”
This new documentary follows them during 2011, a year of great adversity for the sisters. Venus struggled with an energy-sapping autoimmune disease while Serena fought off a bout of pulmonary embolism.
The production crew followed them to Wimbledon. “Both sisters were very disappointed with their performance,” notes Stephanie. “Afterward they shut us out for a while, so they could be together. We couldn’t help but wonder what they were saying to each other.”
Nonetheless, the camera teams had great access to the sisters. “They were very generous in letting us follow them around,” says Stephanie, who was assigned to follow Venus. “Keeping up with them was quite a challenge. They are constantly on the move, their schedules constantly fluctuating.”
Stephanie describes filming “Venus and Serena” as one of her “most fun jobs … they are really nice people.” She and Venus became friends “as much as you could hope to be with a national celebrity. We still email occasionally.”
But the assignment is over and Stephanie is developing her next documentary, a film about a big-wave surfer. The transition from “Doubletime” to “Venus and Serena” was a smooth one. Now on to the next.
Tomorrow, Key West moviegoers are getting a doubletime treat. The Tropic Cinema will be showing both films -- “Doubletime” at 10:00 a.m. and “Venus and Serena” at 6:30 p.m. As part of the Tropic’s Visiting Filmmaker Series, Stephanie Johnes will be on hand to introduce both documentaries and answer questions from members of the audience.
“I’m looking forward to coming down there,” Stephanie told me last week. “The last time I visited Key West I was twelve.”
And I told her that I’m looking forward to seeing “Doubletime again, along with this advance screening of “Venus and Serena.” Watching films with the filmmaker/cinematographer is a rare treat.