The common wisdom, when going into any documentary seems to be that, no matter what the subject, it will make it seem really, really interesting. And, truth be told, some pretty thrilling documentaries have been woven from things that, on the outset, appeared quite dull. Anyone who thought that “The King Of Kong” about a “Donkey Kong” championship was going to end up being one of the most thrilling and humanistic sports movies of all time was either psychic or lying through their fucking teeth.
So it’s with this attitude that you watch Sue Bourne‘s “Jig,” a documentary about competitive Irish dancing and proof that just because a talented filmmaking team gets together and decides to make a movie about something, it can still be quite boring. To say that the movie is just about competitive Irish dancing isn’t an oversimplification; it’s the entire movie. We get glimpses of various competitors from around the world, some with compelling stories, like the young, half-Asian girl in New York who wants to be a world champion or the young American boy who felt so compelled by the sport that he uprooted his family and they now reside in England just so he can study and train. But they are all unified in a single goal – to become world champions.
But the pacing of the movie, which flits between dancers and their families with an uneasy speed, soon becomes a problem. Especially when a fascinating young male dancer, orphaned in Sri Lanka and adopted by a Dutch family, shows up about forty-five minutes into the hundred-minute-long movie. The odds stacked against him are identifiable and you feel like the movie could have easily rested on his shoulders alone. “Let’s see more of that kid!” you want to scream at the screen, before the movie ping-pongs elsewhere.
The other crippling problem with “Jig” is that it fails to explain Irish dancing much, or give any socio-political background to any of the dancers. There’s a young Irish girl, from the north, who can be seen dancing in front of a splotch of politically provocative graffiti, but there’s no mention of the conflict between Northern and Southern Ireland, or how that conflict helped shape or define the dance; whether or not its imbibed with any kind of nationalistic pride, or whether its popularity, which seems somewhat small but outrageously passionate, was born out of said pride.
Instead, the movie just gallops along, without acknowledging or investigating any of the external factors or influences. What it does, besides leave the viewer with a vague hint of confusion, is robs the actual dance of substance and leaves the competitors, in all of their shapes and sizes, as caricatures worthy of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Questions linger and nag: Why are these people investing in costly dance classes and expensive gowns? What compels them? Who are these people? And, more pressingly, why aren’t there parallels drawn between the queasy pageantry of “Toddlers and Tiaras“-style children’s beauty pageants and the make-up-and-sparkles routines that are involved in these competitions?
“Jig” is most interesting when it juxtaposes the lives of the dancers – the lower-class Irish dance classes, in which every dancer dances together, versus the more aristocratic technique of teaching the girl from New York one-on-one. Also fascinating, if under-developed, is the lives of the girls who dance in the older age category; one has a frizzy mop of hair and speaks in the low-slung, working-class accent like one of the estate council girls in Andrea Arnold‘s “Fish Tank.”
That’s not to say that “Jig” is a complete wash, because it isn’t. The dancing itself is expertly gripping to watch, at least for a little while. The way that these kids can ping themselves up in the air, their legs doing incredible, oversized things while the top half of their bodies remain eerily tranquil, is a marvel to behold, especially when the camera slows down and you can really take in the balletic nature of their moves. And, as stated before, some of the dancers are just too weird and engaging to look away from; but both of these elements of the movie fade out as it reaches its climax – the national competition.
It’s here when the color of the movie gives way to be replaced by hoary sports movie clichés. Sure, some of this is genuinely heartbreaking or uplifting, but this section of the movie goes on for far too long, with little of the emotional depth that you were hoping for. Instead, it’s just dance, dance, dance, movie over. Considering “Jig” was a co-production with the BBC, you can’t help but wonder how much better it would have been as some kind of limited documentary series. If that had happened, then each dancer would have been given a fully fleshed out story, the political overtones of the dance could have been investigated, and, most importantly, it would have given room to make the dance seem vibrantly alive and, yes, interesting. [C+]