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Interview: Sue Bourne, Director of JIG: The Story of The Irish Dancing World Championships

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This Friday, June 17, JIG: The Story of The Irish Dancing World Championships opens in movie theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Toronto. The 90-minute feature-length documentary captures the story of the competition’s 40th year.

Director Sue Bourne discussed the process leading to her filming the stories behind just some of the stories behind the thousands of dancers, families and teachers that converged on Glascow, Scotland in March 2010 for seven days of intense dance competition.

I love the opening shots of the documentary, where you get so tight in the action you see the sawdust that is kicked up by the dancers’ steps, and the hairspray being applied to the wig. How early in the development process of the project did you realize you wanted to capture moments like that and with such nuanced detail?

We always knew that it would be great to capture the dancing in wonderful close up detail. However at the world competition we were very limited in terms of what we could do. This was a real, live competition and the ruling body did not want our filming to interfere with the actual competition or influence the judges in any way. So we always had to film from behind the eyeline of the judges – which of course meant we could not get Matrix style multicamera stop frames or multi camera close up coverage. In the end we had five HD cameras and one of those was able to do slow motion – but we only had that camera on the last day. The other interesting thing is just how well slow motion does or does not capture Irish Dancing. It is all about sound and speed so for me the three minutes on Joe Bitters’ feet are astonishing – and there is nothing tricksy about that, just astonishing footwork captured on camera as it happens.

You interviewed the dancers, the parents, the coaches–of those three who proved the hardest to establish a rapport/gain trust in order to garner the level of candor you got in these interviews?

We spent eight months doing the research and getting to know people before we did any filming. So by the time we did film with them they knew Ruth [Reid] – the associate producer – and I pretty well. They were all therefore pretty relaxed when the cameraman and sound man came along to film with them. Possibly the teachers were the most wary because they know the outside world looks rather askance at the wigs and the make up and the dresses. But noone at all refused to take part in the film. If anything we were seriously spoilt for choice. Everyone I think was pretty excited about us filming them.

Which was the greater challenge: garnering the financing for the project in a down economy or convincing the governing body of An Comissiun to let you film the competition?

I think I was very lucky really on both counts. I did self-fund the first eight months. I did not want to take any development money until I knew I had the access. That meant that I could then decide who I wanted to make the film for and it gave me freedom further down the line. The financing was not too hard it just was rather slow. Getting An Coimisiun to agree to let us in took time because we had to do our research into why noone had been allowed in before. And why this might be a good time. And then we had to prepare our case to put in front of the full body of 100 representatives from around the world. And since we managed to pull both of them off it all worked out remarkably well. I am not sure I will find it quite so easy to get the funding in the way I did on JIG or for the same amount.

My wife watched the film with me and was struck at the iconic shots you got of Holland’s landscape (the windmill and sky shot reminded her of something that a Dutch painter might create). Had you always planned on getting those shots to establish setting for Sandun, or were you struck by the visual opportunity when you happened upon it?

What we set out to do was make sure that the film we made was global – and that each environment where the children or dancers came from was captured properly and filmically. I think we have some absolutely fantastic shots of each and every location – showing the contrast and the diversity of locations where you find people doing Russian dancing – Red Square and Moscow, New York, Derry, Birmingham… I think with Sandun there was such and interesting and moving story to tell we wanted to linger in his country / environment a little longer so that people would stop and reflect what his life had been like. And what Irish Dancing had meant to him and his family. And I would hope those rather painterly shots would help them contemplate a moment longer.

Some of these kids provided great quotes that really struck me when they spoke (John Whitehurst, for example, when he spoke of his coach: “He yells, but he does not yell loud”), so I have to wonder, were there great bits and moments you had to edit out of the final version, due to time constraints?

Of course – there always are. We had 200 tapes to boil down to 93 minutes. That is an enormous mass of material. But you know that what you are looking to do is show the essence of each story – that is the price we have to pay for having rather a lot of different characters. We have to boil down their contribution to just those elements that allow the viewer to know them and care about them. And along the way there are a lot of tough decisions to be made about what stays in and what has to go.

While the filming of the competition itself (which demanded 10 15-hour days) was grueling, there was a lot of just as hard filming beforehand. Logistically, reflecting upon filming in nearly a dozen cities, what were some of the greatest challenges?

We went on the road filming early in January and more or less filmed non-stop till the week of the Worlds at the end of March. So one of the main challenges was stamina – to keep going and finding ways of making the dancing look different in each location. And to get in and out of each different story in a short period of time but absolutely ensure that in that short time we got close to the story and managed to get everything we needed. Once we got to the Worlds we knew there would be limited opportunities to talk to everyone – they would be focused on the competition. There is non-stop music and noise at the competition so you can’t really interview them. And there I was doing 15-hour days for 10 full days. It was a miracle we all managed to keep going, especially when that event came at the end of three gruelling, globe-trotting months. But we had a great time and actually I don’t think we ever really felt all that tired because we were so enjoying what we were doing.

As the competition got under way, how hard was it to stay objective and not to root for some of the competitors, given how you had gotten to know them all so well?

I am making a film – I have to remain objective. You always grow close to the people you make the film with. They grow close to us as well. But they know we are there to make a film. And that we have to remain objective. What I know I am doing all the time is watching and knowing whether or not I have all the elements I need to tell the story. And what you always want is variety – winning and losing. So for me, for instance, when Brogan [McCay] watched I just kept filming her – knowing that what I was seeing was a remarkable study of graciousness in defeat by a ten year old. And I knew that that was a magic moment – and in many ways more interesting and moving than if she had won. So I knew that it was great for the film. Sad for Brogan but wonderful to see how she dealt with it.

In a project like this, are there personal lessons you take away from the sacrifices the parents make for their children to pursue the dancing or the graciousness in which the children deal with adversities?

Many lessons and I hope they are all there in the film. I make films about life and about people and about how we all lead our lives. JIG took me into a world I knew nothing about and so I was looking for universal truths, things everyone would find interesting. And yes for me I suppose it became more of a study of family life than about dancing per se. You ask yourself as you watch these children and parents if your own child had a talent like that would you be willing to make the sacrifices.. not just of money but of time and devotion.

After being in these peoples lives for a period of months and getting to know them fairly well, what is it like to walk away and stop documenting their lives? As a documentary maker do you ever find yourself curious to know what is going on in the life of past subjects you have documented?

I don’t walk away from people I have made films about. I am still in touch with people I made films about five and 10 years ago. They have often given so much of themselves to me and my cameras that of course I would not just walk away. What happens though is that in time and naturally you and they move on. You still stay in touch but gradually it gets less and less. With JIG though we have stayed in touch much longer because the film has a whole new life now – it is on in cinemas, being shown at Festivals, they are all being interviewed by newspapers and on television and on radio. So it has made stars of all the main characters. And of course it means we are still in very regular contact with them all. I think that is great.

Once you had all the competition footage completed, how quickly did you realize what you wanted your closing shot to be? 

I think from the minute the editor Colin [Monie] watched the two little girls waiting for their results we knew we had a very dramatic end to the film. So probably very early on we had placed that sequence at the end of the film. You may not quite understand how the scoring system works but you see absolutely everything happening in their eyes and on their faces, and it’s mesmeric I think.

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