September 21, 2017

Tone and Form: Elvira Lind on 'Bobbi Jene'

From Elvira Lind's 'Bobbi Jene.' Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

I first met the Danish director Elvira Lind at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival (where I help program the features). This was back in 2014, the year before she won the CPH:DOX New Talent Award, before she launched her queer docuseries, Viceland's Twiz and Tuck. Lind was at the spa town to present Songs for Alexis, her extraordinarily nuanced portrait of Ryan Cassata, a teenage musician transitioning into adulthood (and into another gender. Ryan also happens to be trans—and in love with the titular Alexis, his cisgender girlfriend). When Ryan treated the audience to a post-screening concert, the cheers from his proud mom were rivaled only by those of the doc's director—who was simultaneously cheering and shooting, of course. In other words, Elvira Lind is a documentarian who invests as much in her flesh-and-blood subjects as in the films themselves—a trait that often separates the good storytellers from the great.

And this mix of curiosity about the lives of unconventional artists, and compassion for them as individuals—possessing the same hopes, facing many of the same struggles as you and me—pays off in spades in Lind's latest, the Tribeca awards-sweeping (Best Documentary Feature/Best Documentary Cinematography/Best Documentary Editing) Bobbi Jene. Another cinematic look at the growing pains of adulthood, Bobbi Jene follows the titular protagonist, an Iowa farm girl who ends up studying at Julliard and goes on to become a dance star in Tel Aviv, at a crucial juncture in her life. Having spent the past decade making a name for herself as the face of Israel's renowned Batsheva Dance Company, she decides—upon nearing the age of 30—to turn away from fame, and the only professional life she's ever known, to return to the States to pursue her own choreography dreams. Leaving behind her mentor, Batsheva founder (and former lover) Ohad; and fellow dancer (and current lover) Or.

But what separates Bobbi Jene from Lind's other defiantly un-sensationalistic work is also what makes it so exceptional. Besides being a straight documentary (in the literal sense, as there are no LGBTQ characters in sight), this is a 100 percent female film, about a woman and told from a female point of view. (Even masculine Ohad, the man who shaped Bobbi Jene, is all about "strong, powerful women," as Bobbi—who tends to move the female members in her audiences to tears —notes in the film.) This is a feminist doc through and through.

"I wanted to make a film about a strong woman, who dares to push boundaries and who isn't scared to be honest about her vulnerability either," Lind explains. "I don't think we can get enough strong female role models to inspire us, and for the younger generation of women to look up to. Bobbi proves that we can do what we set our minds to, pushing the invisible walls around us with force and determination. She establishes her own criteria of success. In her dance, Bobbi balances elegance and femininity with hardcore strength, without compromising either. It is incredibly moving and inspiring to watch.

"Bobbi has stepped out of the norms she grew up around," Lind continues. "When she talks to her mom about her decision to be nude onstage, her mother explains how she never got to express herself without boundaries. In her life it was always more important what everybody else would think. The story of these two women became very important to me. I love how Bobbi's mom ends up allowing herself to experience Bobbi's art with an open mind and to be proud of her, not ashamed."

And yet, to categorize Bobbi Jene as any sort of chick flick would also be misleading. Lind notes that her longtime editor Adam Nielsen found himself surprisingly touched by the "female gaze." "Adam is a very important part of the making of my films, and we start collaborating very early in the process," Lind emphasizes. "He grew up in a dance school with his mom, and the last thing he was interested in was a film about 'ballerinas crying because their feet hurt.' He was immune to that part of the struggle. And he had just edited three or four films in a row, about lots of men and weapons, basically. [Tobias Lindholm's Oscar-nominated A War being one of them.] Yet he said that he was so moved by the content that he cried more than he ever had in his life during the editing of this film."

Lind reveals what's been another key ingredient in her filmmaking success ever since she graduated from City Varsity in Cape Town, with a documentary major, a little over a decade ago. It's something they don’t stress in film schools in the US, but most definitely should: "I always work with open cards, and we talk openly about everything," she explains. "I never interfere with what is happening. Sometimes I'd end up just filming people sitting on their phones playing games for three hours, and then suddenly I'd be filming naked people arguing. Patience is key.

"Bobbi and I became very close during the course of filming," Lind continues. "I kinda have to move in with my camera, and then basically disappear again to capture this form of intimacy, especially between her and her boyfriend Or. It is very important for me to build complete trust between us. Otherwise I can't work the way I do."

And the camera itself seems to be an extension of Lind's process, as she nearly always serves as her own cinematographer—although she is also quick to stress that she looks forward to working with DPs in the future, since "It's important to keep expanding the horizon on your visual language. Some would argue that a sound guy or a DP can jeopardize the level of intimacy in the room, but for me it is mainly because I love filming," she admits.

"I completely disappear into the world of what I am filming when I have my headphones on and a camera in my hands," Lind explains. "Perhaps it helps the people I am filming forget that I am there too. It is also one of the things that allows me to see what film I am making, observing through the lens, exploring the story that way. The way you shoot a film determines the crucial aspect of tone, and I often feel out the tone as I go."

Bobbi Jene opens in theaters September 22 through Oscilloscope Films.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Documentary and Filmmaker magazine. Her work can also be regularly read at Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail. Currently, she serves as the international features programmer at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.

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