First Position – Bess Kargman and the complicated world of child dancers. (film review)

Documentaries and film have a complex relationship – but then anything that wants to be associated with a representation of “the truth” has an equally tough time. Film, as we have explored many times on this blog is a manipulation medium and therefore statements have to be rich and complex if they are to avoid appearing too hackneyed. Films like Samsara, rich in imagery, end up being very opinionated (or appearing to be so) simply by the act of editing. I watched “The Smartest guys in the room” the other night, and was a disappointed to see some manipulative story-telling (not much, but some) when the story there really doesn’t need it.

First Position is Bess Kargman’s first film, and she’s taken the interesting approach of using the manipulative nature of film to offer a perspective that differs from the stereotyped relationship the outside observer has with ballet. The primary myths she wants to debunk are: male ballet dancers are gay, the children have no life or childhood, all ballet dancers are anorexic, and its a cruel exploitative world. Kargman counters these notions with straight young male dancers, emphasis on fitness and health, images of girls and boys eating large amounts of food to maintain stamina, busy happy families that come together around the child’s ballet and supportive teachers who go to great lengths to build the self-esteem of their young protegees.

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The immediate reference point for this film is not other films or documentaries about child ballet dancers, however, it is the 2002 documentary, Spellbound – a film about kids who compete in the national final spelling contest in the United States.  The two films are similar, as has been noticed in many reviews.  Both have a wonderful ability to build suspense so that you are literally nail-biting right to the end, hoping the kid who has become your favorite will make it through to the next round and then the end.  This might be a spoiler alert, but in both the films children who make it right to the final countdown are chosen to be the subjects. First Position is a little different in that they are not all competing against each other.  Some kids wants places in prestigious schools, and some want to train with prestigious ballets.

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A point of great difference with Spellbound, is the seriousness of the contest. In Spellbound, a lovely point of comedy was how serious – particularly one Indian family – were taking the whole spelling bee thing. First Position is nothing like this. These children want careers as dancers. You feel this keenly when the film opens with a young Aran Bell jumping on a pogo stick as he skips rope at the same time.  The training and existing accomplishments of this eleven year old immediately locate the audience in a position of awe that doesn’t leave for the entire film. We might all be OK spellers and sort of keen to give a spelling bee a go, but very few of us can really lay claim to be able to do what Aran Bell can do at eleven.  From the kids point of view, the film is a strong affirmation of the time and commitment and endless energy they bring to the usually thankless task of their daily ballet practice and training.

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And this is partly what Kargman wanted to do. She wanted to bring honor to the children who work so hard.  Often they are derided for these sorts of efforts.  There is a lovely scene where an entrepreneurial father smiles saying he has no guilt about work calling him away from his family because his kids work harder than he does. He leaves in the morning early and they are up either stretching or home schooling and when he gets home late into the night, he spies them still at it. No family dinner as been missed, no knee scrape he needs to heal, no A+ he needs to admire. His children are as serious about their day as he is about his.

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The idea that these kids lose their childhood is in no way dispelled by the film, but the notion that an alternate childhood can exist is the idea put forward. The children are all smiling happy and very fit.  All profess a love for ballet and all are proud of their many accomplishments. There is one child only that talks about giving up, and he is offered that choice freely and he takes it freely.  Only one mother is a bit of a “pusher” but she turns out to be gentle when a clincher moment arrives for her. The parents are all so proud of their kids. And this accomplishment is at the level where only awe and pride can exist in the same place.  In this way the director achieves the outcome she desired.  The film is heartwarming, inspiring and thrilling to watch. Yes we are certainly manipulated, but this time its in favor, not of the lifestyle, but of these marvelous clever children who are so warm, so entertaining and so very beautiful to watch.

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