Review: ‘Bobbi Jene’

Hot Docs 2017

6 mins read

Bobbi Jene
(Denmark/Sweden, 95 min.)
Dir. Elvira Lind
Programme: Artscapes (Canadian Premiere)


Attendees at last year’s Hot Docs festival might have encountered the rhythmic visual babble of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s “gaga” dancing in Mr. Gaga. This year, festival attendees can experience a virtual sequel created by a former member of Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company in the sexy new film Bobbi Jene, which hits Hot Docs after winning a trio of awards at Tribeca for best editing, cinematography, and best documentary feature. This doc by Elvira Lind profiles dancer/choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith as she leaves the Batsheva Dance Company and returns to America to advance her career. Bobbi Jene is a bold dance doc that pulses with erotic energy and artistic spirit.

Smith just passes the age of 30 when the film begins and she finds herself at a crossroads that calls for tough decisions. She loves dancing in Naharin’s company (the two are also former lovers) and she finds herself in the throes of love with a fellow dancer, Or Schraiber, who is ten years her junior. Dancing with Batsheva, however, means relegating oneself to the gaga ensemble—one is simply a part of Naharin’s stage. As challenging and rewarding as Smith finds the dancing to be, she wants to establish herself in her own right and make the leap that will a secure a career as she ages.

The move to New York brings its own challenges. One major hurdle is the choice to continue a long distance relationship. Schraiber doesn’t feel ready to leave Israel, so Smith and her beau stay connected through Skype. Lind shows the passion of their relationship in Israel with naked cooking sessions and cuddling, but the camera hugs the couple even closer when they reunite after being an ocean apart. The gorgeous cinematography is warm and intimate, which makes the struggle of the relationship more potent as Smith weighs love with her career and strives to have both.

Smith recognises that the success of dance is fleeting. It doesn’t bring the kind of financial security that recording music or making movies might do as they bring in sales and royalties. “You’ll pour yourself into a dance and maybe a few people will see it,” Smith shrugs to the camera. She supports her passion by teaching and mentoring. Having danced in Naharin’s company brings a measure of esteem to the New York dance scene that gives her an edge. An entertaining dinner party with actors Laura Dern and Oscar Isaac illustrates Smith’s spunky spirit and relative struggle in comparison to the esteemed company she keeps, but she shows that dancing has its own rewards, therapeutic ones, that Dern admires.

One sees the influence of the gaga dance , as well as a little bit of Pina Bausch, in Smith’s own choreography, as Lind lets elongated rehearsal scenes play themselves out. We watch Smith as she refines a performance that could make or break her career. These intense sequences highlight Smith’s physique, technique, and passion as her choreography uses every extension of her being to move the audience. Lind emphasises one hypnotic element of Smith’s performance in which the dancer forcefully throws her arms and body into a powerful movement that resembles digging and cleansing—a kind of spiritual purging. When she finally performs the act for audiences, including her mother, the image is cathartic.

The talking point of Bobbi Jene, however, might be the climax of Smith’s solo dance routine. The number finishes with Smith releasing all of her energy through a self-induced orgasm before the audience. She grabs a partner in the form of a 50-lb sand bag, straddles it, and rides it until she hits the peak of pleasure in the grand finale. Lind presents the first rehearsal of this risqué number in one captivating long take that inspires both shock and admiration. The dance/performance piece is a bold risk, as is Lind’s open documentation of the dancer exposing herself in a ballet of pain and pleasure. The move might rightfully alienate a number of viewers, but one cannot help but be moved by the vulnerability and strength of Smith’s performance.

Bobbi Jene screens:
-Thursday, May 4 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 3:15 PM
-Saturday, May 6 at Hart House at 6:45 PM

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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