Filmmaker Bess Kargman brings pirouettes to the big screen in First Position
So much for the experts. When Bess Kargman sought the counsel of what she calls “very experienced filmmakers whose opinions I value”, they all told her that she’d never get anywhere with her debut documentary film, First Position.
“Very frequently, they warned me that the likelihood of this ever making it into movie theatres was next to nil,” she recalls, talking to the Georgia Straight from Los Angeles. “Ballet is viewed as being pretty niche, very women-oriented, a little bit elitist, and in some ways a very exclusionary form of dance.”
The money people were no less skeptical. Confronted with a six-minute pitch tape in which Kargman proposed to follow a small handful of kids on their journey to the Youth America Grand Prix—one of the planet’s most prestigious ballet competitions, ending in employment for some—most investors declined. “Their reason was always that they felt the odds were so stacked against me,” Kargman explains.
Perhaps they were, and it’s worth considering that Black Swan was still in its casting stage and just as likely to pirouette into a box-office wall when Kargman and her small crew finally took their cameras on the road. Some years later, with a triumphant debut at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival—followed by an emotional reception at VIFF that has left Vancouver “with a special place” in Kargman’s heart—First Position is now hitting theatres and opens here on Friday (September 7). It’s a small miracle for any documentary, let alone one about something as “elitist” as ballet.
That’s if you consider ballet to be elitist at all. For her part, Kargman offers the statistic that “something like 50 percent” of girls in the States have taken at least one ballet class. “It seems almost like a rite of passage for any little girl between the ages of four and nine,” she says. In any event, the rookie filmmaker was convinced that her vision of the film was solid.
”I just felt very strongly that if I did the job right, I could make it commercially viable,” she says, adding that she was only provoked by all the warnings of certain failure. She also believes that the naysayers underestimated ballet’s universal appeal.
“I think when people can do basically superhuman things with their bodies, there’s a general fascination,” she offers. “And what these dancers can do with their bodies, and the amount of training they undergo, starting at such a young age, I think it’s just awe-inspiring. I take such joy and pride whenever someone comes up to me and they say they don’t know a thing about ballet—they got dragged to the theatre by their dance-enthusiast friends—and that they completely loved the film, they were totally surprised that they loved the film, they saw something in it for them, and that you don’t have to be a dance fanatic to be moved, and surprised.”
Kargman’s decision to shoot her subjects doing superhuman things inside a colour-saturated, wide-angle frame is probably one of the film’s biggest hooks: it’s eye candy with a huge, visceral payload. Beyond that is the inherent drama of watching seven kids of different ages, abilities, desires, and backgrounds striving for the same thing. Again, Kargman’s instincts prevailed over the well-intentioned advice of others.
“They said I was making a big mistake not choosing dancers all from the same age division, because drama would occur in having them duke it out on the dance floor,” she says. “I felt it would be far more interesting to have a really diverse group of kids. The contrast between Jules and Miko is fascinating to me, and Rebecca, I believe, is so essential to this film. It was very intentional to place her introduction very close to Michaela’s introduction, because that contrast is extremely striking, and it’s a very interesting thing about the ballet world: that it’s a tough life no matter whether you have overcome a civil war or whether you look like Rebecca.”
To elaborate, Jules and Miko are siblings with a marked skill gap between them. Jules’s story adds some comic relief to Kargman’s film, and not at his expense: there’s a certain brilliance and strength in the way he cheerfully copes with a Tiger Mom and her diminished expectations. Rebecca, meanwhile, is a willowy blond from a picture-perfect middle-class American family, and Michaela—well, as Kargman notes: “I could make an entire documentary just about Michaela.”
A (relatively) stocky 14-year-old, Michaela was considered a lost cause when she was adopted by a Jewish couple and transplanted from Sierra Leone to Philadelphia. “We couldn’t go into it in the movie, but she was so severely malnourished and had diseases,” Kargman says. “She had hepatitis; she’d been poisoned by dirty water; she was the least, quote-unquote, desirable orphan in the orphanage because of her vitiligo [a pigmentation disorder].” Michaela had also witnessed unthinkable acts of cruelty and violence during the country’s civil war, some of which she describes in the film.
It took Kargman a full year to earn her trust. It took another year of finessing First Position in the editing room so that Michaela’s story didn’t overwhelm the others, but the director’s gut feeling again served her well. She balances her disparate narratives with a dancer’s grace. Not surprisingly, Kargman was in ballet training herself up until her teens, and it left her with a valuable insight about any activity that requires pushing oneself to the limit.
“Don’t go into it the way these kids in the film have gone into it,” she cautions, “because it’s too demanding to put yourself through that if it’s not literally the only thing you want to do. That’s the same with documentary filmmaking. It is too tough of a life, and the money is definitely not a guarantee. Only go into it if there’s literally nothing else you can do.” In this case, maybe we can assume the expert is right.
Watch the trailer for First Position.