London Film Festival: ‘Bobbi Jene’ Review

It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the BFI’s 61st London Film Festival (4-15 October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.

Ivan Nagar reviews Elvira Lind’s LFF Documentary Competition submission.

Bobbi Jene opens in Tel Aviv, where the celebrity contemporary dancer Bobbi Jene Smith is preparing for an upcoming performance. She moved to the city at the age of twenty-one, when Ohad Naharin offered her a place in the famous Israeli dance group Batsheva, dropping out of the Juilliard School of Performing Arts in the process. At the time Bobbi Jene was a naïve girl who had never left her country and, as she later states, jumped on this opportunity without even “thinking of the rent”. Her path wasn’t without difficulties, and Bobbi must make tough decisions and face dilemmas which director Elvira Lind captures masterfully. The camera loiters at a close distance and observes the intimate aspects of both Bobbi’s private and her professional life, sometimes drawing so close to the people around her it feels almost intrusive.

For the most part, Lind succeeds in distilling the mood of Bobbi Jene’s life. We are introduced to her boyfriend, Or, and the realities of cross-cultural romance are sketched out through the little nuances of their relationship. Lind also captures the feelings of disconnect Bobbi faces when she returns to America, to reunite with her family and try to integrate with a dance community that has “no idea that she is back”. Other sequences may prove inaccessible for some. In one instance Bobbi orgasms in a studio space by vigorously rubbing against a sandbag while a man watches from a distance on a chair. We later learn this is the basis of her solo performance in Jerusalem – the moment the film is building up to. The film also boasts a significant amount of candid nudity, which inarguably reinforces the dialogue Bobbi is trying to have about nudity itself and the blanket of self-consciousness around it. Once the viewer gets over such superficially uncomfortable moments as Bobbi shopping for a sandbag with her mother, we can see exactly what she is trying to communicate through her performance and the ways she is sharing a deeply personal experience with not just the live audience in the film but also us as viewers. As Bobbi hilariously remarks to her mother, “sometimes you need to find pleasure in what weighs you down.” One conversation she has with her mother, walking down a New York street, underlines the fundamental philosophical differences between the two and how Bobbi’s growth and evolution as a person in a different culture for nearly ten years has created a divide between the way they see things.

The first peek we get of the performance in Jerusalem is through a carefully and appropriately-chosen wide shot while Bobbi performs for a museum before they approve it. In an interview with a journalist Bobbi goes into detail about how the piece, initially conceived as a five-minute performance, has morphed into an hour-long sequence. The final performance in Jerusalem is described by Bobbi’s former mentor as an experience that would have changed his life had he seen it when he was younger. Coming from a virgin point of view in regards to contemporary dance, I am not sure how much energy from that electric performance is lost in its transition from real to reel – a lot of the dance work in the film was a completely new visual experience for me, and one that invoked many different emotions. The performances ignite a deeply emotional reaction, hard to grasp and even hard to describe, and it’s not clear if they’re intended to make the viewer feel anything specific at all.

Through Bobbi Jene, the filmmaker offers a glimpse into the world of the eponymous dancer: the realities of both her private and professional lives, the turbulence she faces in both by moving back to her country of origin, and the changes this transition causes – sometimes tangible, sometimes subliminal yet thunderous rushes of emotion. Director Elvira Lind has crafted a viewing experience that, much like the contemporary art it depicts, is as powerful as it is abstract.

Bobbi Jene will receive its UK premiere on the 6th of October, at London Film Festival. Watch the trailer below:

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