Scent and sensibility

Elvira Lind and Bobbi Jene Smith on love, sexiness, Arrowed, and why story always comes first

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Bobbi Jene Smith with Elvira Lind on Laura Dern: "Well, she's been an idol for me. I always looked up to her so I was excited to speak to her."
Bobbi Jene Smith with Elvira Lind on Laura Dern: "Well, she's been an idol for me. I always looked up to her so I was excited to speak to her." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The 2017 Tribeca Film Festival was a momentous one for Elvira Lind, the director/cinematographer of Bobbi Jene. Days before the awards ceremony, where her film on Bobbi Jene Smith swept the documentary competition categories (Best Feature, Cinematography and Editing for Adam Nielsen), she gave birth to her and Oscar Isaac's son, Eugene.

In Bobbi Jene, Laura Dern is seen having a conversation with Bobbi Jene Smith as they talk about the rules of the trade - for women. "Don't overdo it!" "Don't be angry!" "Stay sexy!" Dern lists. And where does enjoyment go in all of this concern? Bobbi explains Gaga in response. "It's physical," she says. "You enjoy effort and you enjoy pleasure."

Elvira Lind: "Home is a very diffused sort of idea."
Elvira Lind: "Home is a very diffused sort of idea."

Elvira Lind captures on film when Bobbi breaks the news over dinner to Batsheva Dance Company Artistic Director Ohad Naharin, a former lover, and someone who is unmistakably an immensely important person in her life, that she is leaving Israel. He appears thunderstruck and the camera picks up a tiny wondrous detail that speaks volumes as he picks a morsel of leftover food from her plate and puts it in his mouth. It becomes a grain of her body that in a minuscule ritual signals their past that already includes a farewell.

An enchanted scene in which a lonely, floating chair is rescued from the waves and reunited with its partner chair illuminates Bobbi's relationship to objects, as well as Or Schraiber's love for her. What does it mean when we say home? Why does it often take so much effort to produce the effortless? What is cinema's serpentine relationship to smells and the passion of the senses? I got to discuss some of these matters with Bobbi and Elvira at the Quad Bar inside the Quad Cinema.

Anne-Katrin Titze: What came to my mind was the concept of home. What is home? What is exile? Were you working in thematic strands? Were you thinking about those in the editing process?

Elvira Lind: Not particularly. I am aware of the themes. I'm aware touching upon them. But the story is always first and truthfully telling what happened and how it came together and the feelings.

It might not always be chronologically correct because I'm not there all the time in three years, obviously. I had gaps, so the most important thing is building the feeling that felt right. It was the journey emotionally that we're trying to support. Bobbi Jene Smith: Home? I think for me it's been next to me for a long time, that idea. I'll go home. When will I go home? I'll come back.

Bobbi Jene Smith with Or Schraiber: "And then realising home is when I'm with Or."
Bobbi Jene Smith with Or Schraiber: "And then realising home is when I'm with Or."

AKT: And that's America? Home?

BJS: Yeah and then once you come back, you realise that was home [Israel]. Is home only the place you miss? When does it change? And then realising home is when I'm with Or.

AKT: And where is he now?

BJS: And now we're in New York.

AKT: Both of you together? That's a good ending. Something that wasn't clear at all when you started the film.

BJS: And maybe also that home is in our work. Maybe that's our home? Sometimes I feel home is in the pieces I make. Every piece can feel like I bought a house. Even though I have no house to show for it. But I can go there and I am home.

AKT: All of us around this table have lived in different places. The idea of exile and home can shift a lot.

EL: I agree. Home is a very diffused sort of idea. A concept that has become something different - always where your heart is.

AKT: And actually there maybe is no place like home, to re-emphasize Dorothy. How did the two of you meet?

Laura Dern has a great moment in Bobbi Jene
Laura Dern has a great moment in Bobbi Jene Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

EL: I filmed a production Bobbi was doing about five years ago now. It's five years ago exactly, actually. That she was doing with my now-husband [Oscar Isaac]. They worked on it together and I was filming it.

AKT: What's the name of it?

BJS: It's called Arrowed, it's a lifetime piece. So it's a piece I've committed to do until the day I'll die. The archive of the piece will become the piece.

EL: That was just extraordinary to see her work. And then she danced for us as a thank you. That was the first time I saw her dance.

AKT: What surprised you the most when you saw the finished documentary for the first time?

BJS: I was pretty shocked. I had been working with myself, preparing myself to see it, because I knew it was going to take a lot of letting go. As a performer it's like I spent my whole life trying to be able to hear audience and trying to adapt to whatever the vibrations are in the room at that moment. Watching it on the screen is a completely different ... it's almost a feeling of being handicapped. Like I felt handicapped inside of what I could do. I just try and trust and give her [Elvira] space to make what she wants to make. It felt like a...

AKT: ... handing over of power?

BJS: Yeah, and letting go.

AKT: Smells are also important in this film. I noted down "She's a smeller." The scene when you are unpacking - it's a great catch. Many movies avoid people smelling, because it makes you aware that you smell none of it in the cinema.

EL: You really catch a lot of interesting things that we've never been asked about before. The editor [Adam Nielsen] will love this when I tell him. He also won for best editing in Tribeca. He's an extraordinary editor. He was very, very adamant to have this smelling thing. It's so funny, he kept saying "Women do this, men never do that!" That's what he thought.

Bobbi Jene poster
Bobbi Jene poster

BJS: And Or - he loves smells. He has like crazy talent, he can smell a gas leak in the next building. [She sniffs]. Like a dog.

AKT: That's very safe to have around.

EL: When you fall in love and that lustfulness, that erotic energy that there was. They would smell each other all the time. I don't know, it was just so life-confirming, being around these two lovers. It's so seldom I see that in film - that feeling that you have. Actually one of my favourite scenes was when you [Bobbi] just smell his [Or's] armpit. It ended up not being in the movie. You still noticed!

AKT: So much of our interactions today are through screens and it's important that in a film like yours you get a sense of loss that we encounter when we communicate without seeing each other face to face.

EL: Obviously we went more for a film about feeling and sensing and finding your own answers. Also especially during the making of the film it was a sensory overload. In a good way. There was so much that couldn't be described with words. Only maybe Bobbi could describe it because she is such a poet.

What fascinates me in life are those connections between people that are so difficult to explain sometimes. Like what we were just talking about. How can you see before someone else knows that they're in love? What does lust look like? There's all these little things and for me it's magic. I wanted to try and capture that.

AKT: There's a great moment with Laura Dern. I like how we enter into your conversation. She is saying "Don't overdo it! Don't be too angry! Always stay sexy!" These rules for women, not just actresses, it sounds perfectly absurd when you hear them listed like that.

BJS: Well, she's been an idol for me. I always looked up to her so I was excited to speak to her. And then also to realise each medium is putting different constraints - but they're similar constraints - on how we see women. Like either they're always the crazy ones or they're losing it or - be sexy! These guidelines.

Barbara Kopple announces with David Wilson the Tribeca Film Festival Documentary Awards all won by Bobbi Jene
Barbara Kopple announces with David Wilson the Tribeca Film Festival Documentary Awards all won by Bobbi Jene Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I like your hand gesture just now - like patting a dog on the head - just be sexy!

EJ: You can almost imagine how it's being said. Just stay sexy!

AKT: Everything will be fine, as long as you do that!

BJS: As long as you look good!

EJ: At all times!

Read what Elvira Lind and Bobbi Jene Smith had to say on on detail, effort, editing, and Bobbi wanting a chair to be saved.

Bobbi Jene is in cinemas in the US and will screen in the London Film Festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) on October 5 at 8:50pm.

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