The dance world is full of ambition and sacrifice – in all areas of a performer’s life. The new documentary, simply titled Bobbi Jene, tells the story of the American-born, Israel-residing dancer Bobbi Jene Smith’s return to America after more than a decade.
Giving up her position at the acclaimed Batsheva Dance Company, and her live-in boyfriend, to focus on new creative and personal ambitions, the film provides a remarkably candid (sometimes naked) glimpse into her life and journey.
Director Elvira Lind shows an intimate portrait of Bobbi Jene’s journey, including concerns women everywhere face regarding sexuality, ambition and a ticking biological clock. The film’s remarkable visual achievements won Bobbi Jene three documentary awards at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, including Best Documentary.
Lesley Coffin: How did you first meet Bobbi Jene?
Elvira Lind: Five years ago I made a shorter piece, with my partner (actor Oscar Isaac). And I found her story as a dancer so interesting, I knew I wanted to do another project, one about her journey as a dancer. And we stayed in contact and became friends.
Lesley Coffin: What made you want to make a documentary about this specific time in her life?
Elvira Lind: I, personally, found it fascinating to see a woman close to my own age, very accomplished in her chosen profession, going through the same struggles and insecurities that I had been facing at the time. Personally, I could identify with the frustration and struggles that come from moving from one place to the other, feeling very unsettled in your personal life. It can be very lonely to go from one place to another to pursue your craft. I felt she represented that struggle and could express her thoughts and feelings so beautifully both on camera and through dance.
Lesley Coffin: The documentary is a very intimate look at her personal life. How did you pitch the idea to her? Was she apprehensive?
Elvira Lind: To her credit, she was pretty game. She was more concerned that I went all the way with her. If she was going to do this, she wanted to go all the way. The biggest challenge on the film was probably all the traveling to be with her as much as I could. I never knew where she’d be going to next, and her plans would change a lot, often at the last minute. But that’s who she is and how she lives.
Lesley Coffin: Adam Nielson’s cinematography is beautiful and the film really seems to aim to capture the emotional expression Bobbi Jene puts into her choreography and performances. What are the challenges and rewards of having a dancer as a subject as filmmaker?
Elvira Lind: I personally like vérité filmmaking, so the obvious advantage of having a dancer like Bobbi Jene is having a subject who understands the language of movement and body language. She’s the rare woman who seems to be fully connected to her body, so even when she’s not dancing, she’s interesting to watch. Filming her I just felt so inspired to see someone who seemed in such control of her body and totally understood how to use it to express her emotions. The biggest challenges for me were find ways to capture her movements which complimented her performance, rather than distracted from it. But you still have to get the performance on film.
Lesley Coffin: The film’s been praised for the unique visual style you incorporate. When you were developing project, what decisions did you make regarding how you would present this portrait of a dancer?
Elvira Lind: Well, Adam Nielson was my choreographer and editor, and we discussed the fact that a subject should inform the look of a film, it should inspire a visual style. And Bobbi Jene’s dance certainly inspired the unique way we choose to edit the film. But it also helped that Bobbi Jene and I were so close, because I couldn’t have captured some of the visuals we did without her implicit trust. We have moments where we are shooting on a wide lens but really close to Bobbi, and if it had been someone else, she probably would have felt they were invading her space. But she allowed me to do that, and we started to create our own visual language.
Lesley Coffin: The way Bobbi Jene opens up and addresses her own concerns about her biological clock was very refreshing, but also a moment when she really allowed herself to be vulnerable. Was that a subject you wanted this documentary to address when you first began filming?
Elvira Lind: It’s an issue that had been on both our minds, so it came up naturally. I think it was to the film’s benefit to have a female behind the camera, someone she knew. I would understand what she’s talking about. We are both women in our 30s, have lived our lives as circus clowns who are just starting to settle down. And we were both facing the same dilemma, a decision women have to make because we won’t be able to after a certain age. And then realizing there’s something beautiful about having the ability to make that choice.
© Lesley Coffin (10/01/17) FF2 Media
Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival