We’ve been taught to believe that geniuses are often anti-social, narcissistic and selfish. When we meet one who contradicts these expectations, we are therefore amazed at how “down to earth” and “nice” they are. Such is the case with “Bobbie Jene“, Elvira Lind’s compassionate documentary about the life and art of its titular subject.
Bobbi Jene Smith is an American dancer who came to fame after making a bold decision at the age of 21. After being courted by celebrated choreographer Ohad Naharin, she packed her bags and moved from her hometown of Iowa to live in Israel. Nine years later, she is the star of Ohad’s Batsheva Dance Company. She seeks to take her art to the next level however, prompting her to leave Israel and return home to develop her own choreography and unique style. But as she embarks on the next phase of her career, she realizes she still has ties to Israel, mainly in the form of her boyfriend Or, a younger fellow dancer. Caught between her commitments to her love and her art, Bobbi Jene is forced to reflect on what’s important to her at this critical crossroads in her life.
Indeed, the question of “what now?” arises repeatedly throughout as the film brings the audience into close contact with Smith’s personal and professional life. Lind introduces us to the key individuals who shaped Smith into the woman she is, through private conversations with Ohad, Or and her mother. As mentor, lover and parent, their interactions with her give us a holistic understanding of Smith. And what emerges is a woman of incredible talent and ambition, only rivaled by her compassion for other human beings. In particular, Smith’s romance with Or is revealing in the way it shows her vulnerability in the face of their impending long distance separation. Furthermore, it gives a sense that despite her fierce dedication to her work, their love is genuinely as important as her career.
That benevolent spirit shines through in her art as well, captured with lyrical grace by Elvira Kind’s warm cinematography and direction. The rehearsals and performance sequences are especially breathtaking to watch, as Smith bares her soul and channels visceral emotions through her exquisite movements. One standout scene captures Smith in all her humility and expressive brilliance, as she performs nude in front of a verklempt audience.
This lack of vanity and appealing humanity characterizes Bobbi Jene Smith and the film as a whole. As Smith acknowledges, her success is measured by the immediate impact of her art, rather than any fame or financial gain. And that impact notably includes the toll on Smith herself.
“Bobbi Jene” may not have any searing stories of addiction or other harrowing struggles to share. As such, it may cause you to question the film’s importance and what attracted Lind to tell her story. Furthermore, Lind doesn’t quite illuminate what exactly makes Bobbi Jene so groundbreaking. But ultimately, the emotions expressed through the film and Smith’s artistry speak for themselves. Through her work and her life, she reminds us of the fine line between pain and pleasure. And perhaps unknowingly, her radiant personality encourages us to embrace the effort it takes to live life to the fullest.
“Bobbi Jene” opens in select theaters September 22.