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Interview: Sue Bourne of the Irish Dance Competition Documentary ‘Jig’

posted by Nell Minow

Director Sue Bourne talked to me about her new documentary, “Jig,” the story of the Irish dancing world championships.  It is thrilling, touching, and inspiring, with unforgettable characters and stories and dancing that would make Michael Flatley stand up and cheer.

This is your first feature, right?

Yes.  I’ve been making films for British television for a long time, won some awards, but this is my first feature and it has been a very interesting journey to go on.  Once we heard that 6000 dancers from all around the world were coming to Glasgow for the Irish dancing world championships, I pitched the idea to the BBC.  They said, “That sounds interesting,” and I said, “I want to make a feature film,” and they said, “Why?”  I said, ” I don’t want to make a film about an Englishman, and Irishman, and a Scotsman going to Glasgow — that’s dull as ditchwater.”  If we’re going to make a film that shows the true international scope of Irish dancing then let’s be ambitious about it and raise a big budget and do a big proper feature film.  So it began with me being a bit big for my boots and saying, “I want to go around the world!  I need a big budget!” and it escalated from there!  I could see it would have international appeal and a cinema audience.  Very few documentaries have what it takes for a cinematic theatrical release but I knew this was one.

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How did you know?

My key thing in the films I make is finding the extraordinary in the apparently ordinary.  Everyone’s got a story to tell and I am always keen to show that it’s not about dance; it’s about people and their stories and their lives and what they are passionate about.  I just sensed that there would be great stories and great characters, that it would be about much more than Irish dancing.  And you throw into that that it’s got great music, great dancing, children — I thought, this could be like “Spellbound,” plus “Mad Hot Ballroom” with a dash of Riverdance thrown in as well.

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Those children are amazing, not just in their talent but in their determination and maturity.  When the two top competitors hugged each other, it was a stunningly moving and powerful moment.

And they’re just 10!  We knew that one of the stories we would have to find was a ten year old coming to the World’s for the first time.  We looked for a long time, and many of them were shy.  But then I saw Brogan and she was so remarkable.  I said, “Who’s that!”  I thought, “I’ve got to find out more about that wee girl.”  She could talk for Britain and she was a 10 year old with a sense of humor.  She’s remarkable.  Yes, it’s about dancing, but it’s about much, much more than that.

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We live in a world of “do your own thing” and yet this incredibly rigid and formal style of dance that is so particular and unchanging attracts passionate devotion from people around the world.

After two years, I’m none the wiser about that as to why they all love it so much.  As one said, “It’s the shoes and the rhythm.”  The closest I’ve got is that it casts a spell and you’re hooked.  Something inside them connects with the rhythm or the music or the dance.

One of the most fascinating parts of the movie is how many people overlook their own cultural and ethnic traditions to devote themselves to Irish dance.  You have a group from Moscow, Americans, and a Dutch kid originally from Sri Lanka.

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Only about three of the dancers are Irish!  Even little Brogan, her family never did any Irish dancing.  And people said, “The film is going to be filled with pushy parents.”  On the contrary, we found bemused parents who’ve been dragged into it by children who have been captivated by the dance.

It is as engrossing to watch the parents as the children, though.  You have a couple of shots where you can tell everything just from the way they tense their shoulders and life their chins as they watch their children perform.

As with all sport, the teachers and parents live a little vicariously through their children and it is so beautifully manifest in that moment.  I had to ask myself as a mother if I would be willing to make some of the sacrifices the parents in this movie make to support their children — to move from California to Birmingham!  If you’ve got a tennis or golf prodigy you might movie because they could make millions.  But here, if you are the world champion, you get a little bauble.  They’re not motivated by celebrity, they’re not motivated by money, they’re not motivated by anything other than the goals they set themselves to be the best.

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