In director Elvira Lind’s absorbing documentary about American dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, the narrative triumph within is the subject’s own personal journey to independence. While artistry and those who create lie at the heart of the film and the moments where the camera bares witness to beautifully choreographed creations, it is the tale of Bobbi herself and her brave transition from student to teacher that is the most profound.
Recently winning this year’s Tribeca Film Festival award for best documentary feature, “Bobbi Jene” tracks the titular artist as she makes the difficult, life-altering decision to return to the U.S. following ten years abroad starring in the famous Israeli dance company Batsheva. As she tries to move forward with her life, Bobbi is forced to emotionally grapple with leaving behind not only her highly-influential mentor, but a romantic partner she attempts to maintain a long distance relationship with.
Utilizing that sense of being caught between two worlds, Bobbi uses this uncertainty as inspiration for her art. Upon arrival back in San Francisco, the filmmaker follows Bobbi as she begins a career as a solo artist and goes on to premiere a groundbreaking new dance piece that explores all of her recent journeys and struggles.
Lind captures all this emotional turbulence expressed through art as an fly-on-the-wall onlooker who is comfortable sitting back and simply allowing Bobbi to perform. From the near silent opening minutes quietly observing her rehearse naked in her studio to a moment of playful honesty on the couch in her family home, the director understands that Bobbi is captivating enough to just spend time with. It helps that Bobbi is such a sweet and soulful presence; as a performer she’s illuminating, capturing bits and pieces of the avant garde oddness of what made Pina Bausch’s choreography so transcendentally compelling. Beyond her performances though — which easily could have made up the entire documentary without losing a step — Bobbi has such an honest spirit she could have successfully led a more traditional talking heads doc.
Lind’s cinematography and Adam Nielsen’s editing is crisp enough that “Bobbi Jene” moves at an admirable clip, only losing a a little momentum in the second act. The ways in which the natural settings are juxtaposed with Bobbi’s dancing are engrossing — such as a moment where we see her warming up in a basketball court next to a group of men in the middle of heated competition. It’s a startling, stark and beautiful contrast of two radically different forms of athletics that also quietly communicates how hers is just as physically demanding.
If there is a minor complaint to be made, it’s that even at its brief running time “Bobbie Jene” runs long and could stand to be more compact. And as magnetic as Bobbi’s presence is, it’s her dancing and her body of work that is most transfixing.
There will always be something naturally intriguing about watching someone with an inventive and creative mind who thrives at the work they love. Documentaries are often used to enlighten and teach about horrors or hardships taking place in the world, so it’s nice to see a film that’s sole focus is on an artist and their growing empowerment. Bobbi’s failures, goodbyes, successes and reconciliations are beguiling, often heartbreaking to witness, but ultimately, it’s the artist’s thrilling dedication to her craft that offers the most sublime state of grace. [B+]