What constitutes an out-of-body experience for moviegoers? For me, it’s when a film transports me so entirely into the life of the person onscreen that I feel as if I am living it myself. The first two features from documentarian Elvira Lind have had that effect on me. When I saw her Tribeca prize-winner, “Bobbi Jene,” at this year’s Hot Docs festival in Toronto, I was blindsided by the film’s visceral portrait of rigorously personal artistry. In my review published at RogerEbert.com, I hailed Lind’s picture as one of the year’s best, noting that it could “prove to be a profoundly cathartic experience for audiences.” Whenever the camera centered on its subject, Bobbi Jene Smith, performing her breathtakingly physical and audacious dances, I immediately got the sense that I was observing something rare and sacred. Her performance pieces operate on the senses like any other great work of art, conveying deep truths without overtly articulating them. Instead of devolving into a preachy treatise on the meaning behind Smith’s movements, Lind’s film allows the work to speak for itself. So unobtrusive is the camera’s presence that there were long stretches in which I forgot I was watching a documentary. Bereft of narration or static talking heads, “Bobbi Jene” fully immerses us in Smith’s perspective—her desires, her fears, her evolving identity—with a bracing intimacy normally reserved for scripted narratives.
As a longtime member of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company headed by trailblazing choreographer Ohad Naharin (himself the subject of a great doc, Tomer Heymann’s “Mr. Gaga”), Smith overcame an eating disorder while finding empowerment in her tutor’s Gaga dance method. Uninterested in emaciated bodies, Naharin encouraged his dancers to flaunt their physicality without any regard to societal prejudices or taboos. Smith’s goal of arriving at a place where she has “no strength to hide anything” inspired her to perform an hour-long piece, “A Study on Effort,” in the nude. Obliterating every sexist stigma in its path, Smith’s performance is an electrifying reclamation of female power, culminating with the dancer pleasuring herself on a sandbag until she reaches her climax. I couldn’t help being reminded of the equally daring filmmakers Deborah Kampmeier and Joanna Arnow, who have both made movies that contain frank depictions of female characters masturbating. In a 2015 interview, Arnow told me that the stigma on women intensifies when they “are active agents in their own sexuality.” Later that year, I spoke with Kampmeier, who voiced her distress at the term “pure women,” citing that repression and abuse are two sides of the same coin. “I have a daughter, and I don’t want her to grow up abused or repressed,” she said. “I want her to grow up as a whole, sexual being. I feel very strongly that our sexuality is deeply connected to our creativity, our spirituality, our power and our wholeness, and that is being chipped away at constantly in this society. Our daughters need to be educated, not naive and ‘pure.’”
Smith echoes these views in Lind’s film when she responds to her mother’s worries about the nudity in her performances, insisting that “withholding and hiding” would be much more harmful to her psyche. At a time when misogyny is brazenly exuded by our own president, Smith embodies the fierce spirit of the women who marched on the day following his inauguration and are raising their voices against the multitudinous other powerful men in our society guilty of sexual harassment. Even Patty Jenkins’ record-breaking blockbuster, “Wonder Woman,” had a heroine who believed that men were an unnecessary component of female sexual pleasure, a bold statement for any Hollywood film to make, let alone a family-friendly one. What makes Smith’s work so indelible is how it refrains from grafting any obvious themes onto its craft. Some critics were puzzled by the screen time devoted to Smith’s relationship with an Israeli dancer, Or Schraiber, which she attempts to sustain after moving back to the U.S. By juxtaposing footage of Smith’s personal life with her rehearsals, Lind wordlessly illuminates how the dancer’s work emerges organically from her own life. To practice one of the most agonizing sections of “A Study on Effort,” Smith pushes with all her strength against a wall, straining to move an object that, like Or, refuses to budge. The sheer effort that it takes to keep a relationship alive is reflected in Smith’s dance as she mimics lifting an object with intense speed and repetition until it appears as if she’s moving in reverse.
In many ways, “Bobbi Jene” is a fitting companion piece to Lind’s 2014 debut feature, “Songs for Alexis,” another richly nuanced film about a performer struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship. In this case, it’s Ryan Cassata, a teenage transgender singer who falls for a young woman, Alexis Ann, and writes songs about her that overflow with youthful euphoria. Reflecting on the heightened emotions he experiences during Ann’s visits, Cassata observes, “It’s like you fall in love and break up all over again.” This line cuts to the heart of not only Lind’s work, but of another film that is similar in tone and style—2008’s “Nights and Weekends,” the first directorial effort of Greta Gerwig, whose coming-of-age marvel, “Lady Bird,” is a top Oscar contender this year. Gerwig co-wrote and directed “Nights and Weekends” with Joe Swanberg, and starred alongside him as a New Yorker drifting away from her boyfriend in Chicago, as their bond starts to fray over time. After endless flights and fragmented visits, Gerwig’s character becomes increasingly uncomfortable in her own skin, at one point fidgeting helplessly with her body in a mirror. Like Smith, Gerwig is an intuitive performer unafraid of physical or emotional nakedness, and her background in dance has greatly informed her approach to acting. During my first interview with her in 2011, Gerwig told me that dance and sports were useful in how they taught her about the economy of movement and goal-directed activity. The sweating or outward displays of emotion that would occur during a game or performance were always secondary to the activity itself, and therein lay the key to her naturalistic performances.
“If I don’t understand a character, if it doesn’t sit in my body right, if I don’t feel like I understand it in my body, it’s not there,” Gerwig said. “I can’t remember my lines if it’s not there. I did plays in high school and college, and I never remember memorizing my lines. As soon as I had blocking, I would know them instantly. As soon as I had movement associated with things, I would be fine. That’s why auditions were so hard for me when I started acting. You’d be sitting in a chair and having to look at someone and say the lines, but you would be a talking head. I always needed to get up and move around and do things because otherwise it felt like I was acting and not just having a conversation. I needed to have some kind of physical reality to what I was doing.” For Smith, dance is essentially about staying true to what happens in her body, which comes before any motives materialize in her mind. When I interviewed her earlier this year, Smith discussed the particular ways in which dance has served as her own source of healing. “A lot of times in life, we move before we think instead of actually listening before we move,” she said. “In terms of eating disorders, that whole connection between what you think and what you feel is totally severed. In dance, you’re entirely focused on what you’re sensing in your body and the thoughts that come from that, as well as those primal desires and senses. When you listen to your body, you want to move. You don’t want to sit still, and the older I get, the more I sense that.”
2017 has been a strong year for cinema, and an exceptionally strong one for documentaries. Nearly half of the pictures vying for my Best of the Year list are nonfiction contenders, but few have moved me as deeply as “Bobbi Jene.” At its core, the film is a love story not just between two people, but between Smith and her own body. It’s a rebuke to the commoditization of female flesh so deeply woven into our culture that it took a predator-in-chief to inadvertently upend it. Lind reminds us that there is nothing selfish about self-love, and nothing shameful about embracing it on one’s own terms. The film ends with Smith, at age 30, basking in her new role as a teacher, spreading the fire of her passion to future generations. “It’s been a huge opportunity for me to try and show women how powerful they can be and how fragile at the same time, and how those two things don’t have to cancel each other out,” she told me. “In a dance form where you are taught to become smaller and smaller, it’s my goal to allow people to bust out and become extremely wide and vast and wild. That’s all I want to do.”
“Songs for Alexis” is currently available on Vimeo. “Bobbi Jene” is now in limited theatrical release and will be screening at The Roxie in San Francisco on Saturday, December 9th.