Bobbi Jene Smith strips naked, gracefully moves her way through a crowd of onlookers, gesticulates in a series of wild yet graceful spasms, and ultimately, masturbates to orgasm against a sack of sand. While this is not likely an experience that most filmmakers have had, its underpinnings are probably familiar to any artist.

This scene is from Smith’s first solo dance exhibition after leaving the comfort of a ten-year career as part of Israel’s most internationally recognized dance company, Batsheva. In order to strike out on her own, she left the company and country behind, along with her boyfriend and any sense of security that she may have built. There isn’t an artist among us who hasn’t asked the questions that she is asking in this film: what does creative success mean to me and what am I willing to sacrifice to achieve it?

“It's quite extraordinary to find someone who can talk with their body in the way that she can.”

Filmmaker Elvira Lind was alongside Smith for this entire transition, documenting personal conversations, intimate love scenes, and—most strikingly—Smith’s relentless creative process, to the point where there are times when it’s unclear whether we are watching a true documentary or some sort of performative fiction.

This hybrid approach and clever editing that lets us witness echoes of Smith’s daily life in her onstage work gained the attention of the documentary jury at Tribeca 2017, who awarded the film with all three of their juror awards for best directing, best camera work, and best doc overall. No Film School spoke with Lind during the film’s theatrical release about her one-woman-band approach to shooting such a personal story, riding the line between documentary and narrative, and more.

NFS: Like most docs, this seems like a film that started as one idea and became something else. How did your original concept evolve from the beginning to the end?

Lind: I don't work a lot with concepts, honestly. I usually have been attracted to a person or their story, or just fall in love with their story. And then I see where it goes and I never really know where it will take me, so there has to be a lot of fascination for me to stay on.

It's a big commitment when I start. So, you know, you just kind of have to hold on and hope for the best.

NFS: So, in this case, what was it that attracted you so deeply to Bobbi Jene?

Lind: We met when I was filming a performance that she was doing called Arrowed, one of her earlier pieces that she's going to continue and do for the rest of her life. The performance would only be seen through this documentation. We were working together on this and we were talking about how to capture it. That became a really big conversation. It became a conversation about sensuality, and sexuality, and career, and settling down, and not settling down, and figuring out who you are and identity. All these interesting things that for both of us were very relevant where we were standing in that moment in time. 

And I was interested in making a film that could sort of mirror some of my own things. Until then, I had just made films that were about people that were younger than me. And I was just curious to observe someone around my own age; maybe I was looking for some answers. And maybe I thought Bobbi Jene has them. So I just started following her around. I mean, that's not what you tell yourself when you start. Obviously it's retrospective.

I also thought she had something to teach other people, not just women but all of us. Her life philosophy, her very poetic approach in her work, and her approach to life just in general, and then her incredibly moving work with her physical language. It could speak in a different way than anyone else, and when you film things, you're looking for something that's captivating visually, then it's quite extraordinary to find someone who can talk with their body in the way that she can, and express themselves that way. That was definitely a major vision for wanting to make this film with her.

Bobbi JeneBobbi Jene Smith performing

NFS: There were times watching this film where we were unsure whether it was a documentary or narrative. How did you design the film to feel so much like a narrative?

Lind: So that was a stylistic choice, and challenge for me. In my previous film, I was perhaps even more strict to the “rules” with even less talk to camera. (Sometimes, in this film I break the premise and have Bobbi talk to me.) And so I wanted to see if I could keep working with that. I just find that a beautiful way of telling someone’s story without them having to explain themselves. It’s more about understanding beyond just how we explain ourselves in words.

NFS: Were there some specific choices that you made, or things you changed while you were filming to make sure that you weren't doing a more traditional documentary treatment?

Lind: The story of the film that's sort of someone who doesn't know what's going to happen and the huge challenge and the huge risk it is to go on just trying to succeed on your own. And what's the criteria of success? And what does this even mean? And re-defining that for yourself. So, it would be harder having her talk us through what she was doing and us trying to understand it. We're seeing what she was doing and going through. They are just two completely different approaches.

Also, it couldn't be about her body of work because it is not that big yet. Actually, I'm sure you could make a very, very interesting documentary about what she’s done already, but I just found that being present with her making those decisions was stronger, and more interesting for me as a storyteller.

“When you're there and you can capture it, they give you only reality. And you are so lucky that you can film this.”

NFS: Were any of the scenes recreations, or set up between the two of you? 

Lind: It was all natural. And that was the premise. Maybe it would have been a better film if I had done it different, but that was the premise, and didn't want to break that. I think it's also a very honest way of telling the story that when you're there and you can capture it, that's what they give you. They give you only reality. And you are so lucky that you can film this.

NFS: But I think because Bobbi Jene is a performer, sometimes it feels like she's kind of performing for the camera. Were there times when you had conversations with her about that? 

Lind: There were no moments where she was told to do anything or where she felt that she was performing. I mean, I think maybe when we see these emotions on display in the documentary, we assume that there can be some element of performance in it, but there really wasn't. And it was also from long, long years of just being with her and filming for long periods of time and basically moving in with her. We didn't have to discuss much about how it was to be filmed. 

Of course, there's a start-up process, where it's like suddenly there's someone with a camera and it's a little bit awkward and weird. So there was that moment of just figuring it out together and then it just became such a natural part of being together that I had this camera with me and, you know, I'm a one-woman band so it wasn’t like I’d walk up and there was the sound guy and other people.

Bobbi JeneBobbi Jene Smith and boyfriend Or Schraiber in 'Bobbi Jene'

Sometimes, I would have the camera and I wouldn't film, and then I would start to film a little bit and you don't always know when the camera was on and off and it just became so integrated in our time together. So, I was very careful not to film when she felt overly on display, or when she would feel a need to give me anything.

I didn't want her to feel that I was looking for something specific. Because if she knows what I'm looking for, then she'll try and give it to me. And then the performance aspect can come in, you know? I think it's just something human, a natural instinct that we kind of want to give people what they want. So we never talk about my intentions. We just talk about life. Honestly, it wasn't like I was trying to steer it in any direction. I just wanted to see what truly was going to happen. And I knew that she was going to do amazing things, and then I was led by my curiosity about her life and where she was going. I had faith that she was going to be interesting. 

NFS: I was wondering about your crew, because it was so intimately shot. What gear did you use? 

Lind: I worked on quite a few different ones. I shifted at one point to the Sony A7S-2, which was wonderful to work with because it was just much lighter. It's a really good camera. And I use different prime lenses, and change as I go. And then I have two microphones that I work with. And that's just kind of my little handy set so I can just run along.

“When am I invited in without words? And when is my presence ruining their intimacy?”

NFS: Did you ever leave the couple with the camera? Or just leave the camera on a tripod and leave the room, or were you always there with the couple even when they were having kind of intimate moments?

Lind: No, no, no. I was there. You know, we didn't discuss this subject, we just kind of let that sort of become what it was. 

I also have trained my sense of intuition and there's a lot of sensitivities we challenge. Like, when am I invited in without words? And when is my presence ruining their intimacy, you know? It's just like finding a balance all the time. That's the most important part of this work, I think, mainly in the production. When you're filming, it's just making sure that you perceive these signals. 

If you capture a strong scene, then maybe the next day you don't film more. You have to give them space after you've stepped into intimate moments so that things breathe, and you just kind of have this unspoken way of working together over the years. And you never ask anything. You just take what you are invited to take. That's just for me. Obviously, there are very, very different ways of working with that, but that's how I like to do it.

NFS: I thought the editing was clever. How do you work together with your editor over such a long period?

Lind: I have an extraordinary editor [Adam Nielsen] and he really deserves every prize there could be for editing. I don't know how to make films without him, to be honest. We start off very early, even when I have an idea, I sometimes bring it to him, and he just becomes my confidant.

“If you know the tone, you'll help yourself along really well.”

NFS: What is your process working with him? Are you sending material along the whole time you’re shooting? 

Lind: Halfway through, we sort of sit down, and look at it and I go "Okay, what have we got here? What's this? What's going on?" I almost, like, come in and put my heart on the table: "Here's all this stuff and this is what I'm doing with it.”

And we sort of try and find our way through it together. And then try and find the tone. Very important is always to figure out what is the tone of the film. Because usually the tone is pretty consistent. If you know the tone, you'll help yourself along really well. So, identifying it, and then making sure that he agrees with what I'm doing, and sometimes he sees something I don't. He's like, "Maybe this is a stronger story line, or you should maybe try and push that a little bit more." 

So we sit with it halfway through usually and then edit some scenes, which you also have to for funding reasons. And then in the end, we usually edit in about three months. That's the time we have.