Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Another dancer documentary, Elvira Lind's BOBBI JENE, opens in New York City

After Dancer, Restless Creature, A Ballerina's Tale, and a number of other dance-themed documentaries that TrustMovies has seen over the past few years, the newest example -- BOBBI JENE, directed by Elvira Lind -- arrives as an odd but not uninteresting addition to the genre. The movie of which it most reminds me, however, is not a documentary, but the highly detailed, psychologically astute narrative film, Polina. Interestingly, both movies are being released within a few weeks of each other via Oscilloscope Films.

Filmmaker Lind, shown at right, is clearly fascinated by Bobbi Jene Smith, an Iowa-born women who, more than a decade ago, left her home and family in the USA to go study and apprentice with Ohad Naharin, the director of Israel's famous Batsheva Dance Company, where she became one of the principal dancers and eventually a choreographer, too.

The film begins as Bobbi Jene has made the decision to leave Israel, return to the U.S. and pursue her own career as... well, it looked to me like a combination of dancer/ choreographer/ teacher. The movie details her journey toward all this, even as it gives equal time to her romantic life and sexual relationships, which involve a former connection to her teacher/mentor/lover Narahin, her current boyfriend Or Schraiber (also a dancer with Batsheva), and most bizarrely and importantly with a sack of something (flour, cement?) that she uses as a masturbatory device in her main performance piece that we see in great detail here.

Yes, Bobbi Jene, the movie and the woman (shown above, below, and on poster top), wants to be a ground-breaker and barrier-buster. And they are, to some extent, at least. But for all the shock and awe the "dancer" produces (audiences at her live performances we see do seem stunned and moved to see a nude woman reaching orgasm right in front of them), the movie itself consistently glides along the surface of things, telling and showing us what is happening without much probing.

Which raises the oft-asked question regarding certain documentaries: Would this tale have been better told as a narrative film? My answer is "yes." Because, though the characters we see are clearly "acting" for the camera (and doing an excellent job, too), this is hardly "real life." Some scenes, especially those between Bobbi Jene and Or, seem staged or at least re-created. A narrative movie might have allowed us to experience love making between the pair (rather than discretely cutting away as happens here) so we might compare what our heroine is getting from Or with what she gets from that sack she uses in her dance routine. (This may sound silly, but that sack gets the most sexual-partnering screen time of anything we see.)

Calling Bobbi Jene's routine "dance" is also a little iffy, I think. "Performance art" maybe, but I didn't see much dance here. Her act most reminded me of the work of Marina Abramović, with the sexual element even further front-and-center. This is not difficult to take, however, for Bobbi Jene has a wonderful, beautifully-sculpted body, a pretty face and flowing hair, all of which we see plenty of during the course of the doc. Her commitment to her cause certainly comes through, even if that cause seems at times more than a little one-note.

A narrative movie would also have allowed more probing into subjects that, here, are simply brought up and then laid to rest: Bobbi Jene comes from a hugely Christian, maybe even fundamentalist, family. Surely the split, even the reconciliation was filled with more drama than we experience from the documentary. Ditto the relationship with Or (shown above, left).

So far as her sensational dance piece is concerned, maybe you have to witness this in person. For all the praise and tears and accolades we see the audience heaping on her, post-show, what we actually view via the film certainly did not move me to any extreme whatsoever.

And yet Bobbi Jean's story is a fascinating one. Its combination of needs -- sexual, psychological, practical and career-wise -- makes it unusual and compelling. But the film itself, as much as any I've recently viewed (save last week's very personal and oddball family memoir Red Trees), puts me in mind of how "incomplete" even a good documentary can be.

From Oscilloscope Films, in mostly the English language, and running 95 minutes, Bobbi Jene, opens this Friday, September 22, in New York City at the Quad Cinema; on Friday, October 6, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal; and on Friday, October 13, in San Diego at Media Arts Center. To view any further additions to the playdates/cities/theaters list, click here then click on SCREENINGS (or simply scroll down).

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