Elvira Lind’s Bobbi Jene mistakes its subject’s significance within the world of contemporary dance as a reason unto itself to make a documentary about her. Lind’s camera provides little insight into Bobbi Jene Smith, whose prominence within Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company developed throughout her 20s. Lind struggles to convey the energy of Smith’s talent despite the fact that her daring style of dance, which involves her being fully nude and writhing on the ground à la Isabelle Adjani in Possession, would seem well suited for carrying a feature film. Unlike Robert Greene’s far superior Actress, which provocatively muddies the line between fact and fiction to enlivening ends, Bobbi Jene fails to uniquely demonstrate the unstated stakes inherent to contemporary dance and, as a result, films nothing particularly complex about either Smith or her sojourns between Israel and New York.
As the film opens, Smith is debating whether or not to return to the States after spending nearly a decade in Tel Aviv with the Batsheva Dance Company. To dramatize this dilemma, Lind captures Smith with Or Schraiber, her boyfriend and fellow company member, whose reluctance to see Smith leave is pretty straightforward: He wonders when he’ll be able to see her again. The problems of Bobbi Jene’s structure are largely dramaturgical; Lind inserts instances of pillow talk or generic conversations between the couple in restaurants that demonstrate little more than the typicality of their exchanges. Rather than construct a narrative highlighting Smith’s unremarkable romantic life as a contrast to her ferocious style of dance, Lind more effortlessly offers up the footage as a matter of documentary due diligence. If some docs trip themselves up playing too loose with temporality, Bobbi Jene feels suffocated by its chronology, leaving it desperately in need of some sort of formal injection to put some pep in its steps.
On the matter of dancing, Bobbi Jene contains frustratingly little of it. Once in New York, Smith visits her mother, Denise, whose aversion to risqué styles of modern dance derives from both her Christian faith and unwillingness to witness her daughter perform while nude. Yet Smith’s mother is by no means demonstrative or vocal about these matters; unlike i hate myself : ) director Joanna Arnow’s mother, who protests and flees a rough cut of her daughter’s sexually explicit documentary, Denise only conveys her feelings through polite exchanges with Bobbi Jene. Lind’s camera only sees the face value of these short-lived conversations on future endeavors, which unfold over a span of just a few minutes, before the film moves onto charting Bobbi Jene’s upcoming project in Jerusalem. Around Bobbi Jene’s midway point, it’s evident that the film’s capacity for inquiry into the psychology of its subjects halts at mere sketches of Smith and company’s desires and emotional states.
Even the film’s final third, which features Smith’s solo performance at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, lacks dramatic urgency or even a necessary amount of context to grasp precisely what’s at stake in her performance. Are there art critics in the crowd ready to condemn or praise her? What, exactly, would constitute a successful versus unsuccessful performance? Lind shoots the performance in fragments, with obvious amounts of it excised into a five-minute sample platter of Smith’s offering. While that makes logical sense for its function within a 90-minute documentary, Smith’s free-form expressions, which involve her twisting, jumping, and contorting nude on stage, would have benefited from a more active camera (or, at least, multiple cameras) to communicate the kinetic effect of the dance.
As the performance is presented here, Lind might as well have been shooting an impromptu video on a smartphone from the crowd. Moreover, Lind’s truncated offering doesn’t give a clear sense of Smith’s abilities as a dancer. After the performance, the sole given feedback is a very brief appraisal from an anonymous onlooker, who expresses the sort of sparse and hyperbolic congratulations one might expect within the contexts of a post-event pat on the back. By providing glimpses of Smith’s art and only one assessing voice, Lind is closer to making an advertisement for Smith than a film about her. Neither satisfactory as portraiture, profile, nor dance film, Bobbi Jene too often feels like being forced to watch a proud parent’s home videos, where adoration and assumed relevance supersede a more brazen reckoning with the challenges, both mental and physical, of blazing new trails.