Three thousand dancers, their families and teachers from around the globe descend upon Glasgow for one drama filled week. Clad in wigs, make up, fake tan, diamantes and dresses costing thousands of pounds they compete for the coveted world titles. A year of incredibly hard work for just a few tense minutes on stage.
This feature length documentary was given access for the very first time to the little known world of competitive Irish Dancing. With financial backing from BBC Scotland and Creative Scotland award‐winning filmmaker Sue Bourne went behind the normally closed doors of Irish Dancing and found a remarkable world. Wonderful characters of all ages from across the globe....Ireland, Holland, Britain, America and Russia.
Jig discovers a world of dedication, hard work, obsession, passion. Success and failure. And astonishing talents pushed to their limits in the quest for perfection.
We recently caught up with director Sue Bourne to find out more about this world. Here is our conversation.
What about this world fascinated you to the point that you had to pick up a camera and make a movie about it?
Sue Bourne: You are always looking for interesting films, and you are always drawn to things that no one else has done before. In this case, no one had ever been allowed into the world of Irish dancing to make a film. The competitions are good, because there is a narrative there for you. This is a world I knew nothing about. It is also a strange world, because there were the wigs and the make-up, and the big, expensive dresses. It hit a lot of boxes for me. You could see it was a fascinating world. And the more research we did, the more into it we became. There was a lot going on here that made me think this was going to work. I think its difficult to get people into the cinema to watch a documentary feature. I thought this was a film that could work in the cinema. I don't often think that. Because I did feel that way, I decided to take that bit between my teeth and go for it.
If no one has been allowed access into this world, how did you gain access into it?
Sue Bourne: Someone came to us and told us they were holding the Worlds in Scotland. We thought that was interesting. We did a bit of research, and I sent my associate producer to Philadelphia, because they were holding the Worlds there, that year. She phoned me up after, and she said, "It would make an absolutely brilliant film. You have no idea! It is the strangest world here." But then she said, "You will never get in. They don't allow the parents to use their cameras during the competitions. They would never allow an outsider to come in and make a film." So we had a very long, hard journey to get that access. We began by researching the reasons why they had never let anyone in. And we began talking to people. We began to get a sense that the time was right to get a film made. The Glasgow Worlds in 2010 were the fortieth anniversary. So that was a big deal. The reason that they gave, we discovered, for not allowing cameras in was to protect the choreography of the steps. They wouldn't let anyone film that. They were also weary about outsiders. Because they knew that one of the things outsiders would leap onto, was the hair, the wigs, and the make-up. Their attitude was, they are quite happy with it. They understand it and know why its there. They didn't want outsiders coming in and being critical of it. Also, there was a whole new younger generation starting to come in and take over this world of Irish dancing. The younger generation saw how a film about Irish Dancing could do great things in showing what this is really like to the outside world. We prepared our presentation. We flew to Dublin. And we presented our case to the 100-committee members who run the Irish Dancing competition around the world. They asked us all sorts of difficult questions. The good thing is that they knew my films. I have won a lot of awards. A lot of people have seen these films. And they knew that what they were getting was a good documentary filmmaker. That helped. We thought they'd get back to us in a few weeks and let us know if we could make the film. Actually, as soon as we were getting into our taxi to go to the airport, they came running in and said, "You are in!" So we did it. From that point on, they left us to make the film we wanted to make. They didn't interfere in our choices, they never knew who we were filming. The only thing they said to us was that when we got to the competition, the presence of the cameras cannot affect the competition. It is a live competition, these kids have worked incredibly hard for their six minutes on stage. The judges must not know who you are filming or following. So all of our cameras had to be behind the eye line of the judges, so that they didn't know who we were filming. That was it. That is how it worked.
In the movie, we see the New York girl watching and copying the Irish girl's dance steps. If cameras are not allowed in, how was this young girl able to see her competitor's moves?
Sue Bourne: It was on Youtube, wasn't it! That's what she said. She would watch the other girl's steps on Youtube. The reason they kept cameras out for so long is because they didn't want anyone filmed. The choreography is supposed to be secret. But anyone nowadays can get a mobile phone with a video camera and film it like that. What happened was, the reason they could no longer say that they wouldn't allow cameras in, was because things were bobbing up on Youtube. Other people have started putting footage up. That is what they started to do.
Not only are you having to shoot these dances from behind the judges' eye line, you are also having to keep up with one of the most kinetic art forms ever performed. How did you go about choreographing your own shots for this movie?
Sue Bourne: It all had to do with getting an absolutely brilliant cameraman. We were talking about this the other day with the cameraman. He reminded me that he'd studied. He'd looked at footage of the dancing. That first day of filming, we went straight to a dance class in the evening. He said it was rubbish, because he hadn't realized how fast it was. How difficult it was going to be to follow people's feet, because they run around all over the place. In the end, there wasn't much footage from that dance class in the movie, because it was all rubbish. What he had shot. Obviously, over the course of three months, he became an expert at filming the feet, and filming the dancing. What he set out to do at each dance class around the world was to shoot each one differently. Because he got better and better at filming the dancing. The speed is really difficult. At the Worlds, we obviously didn't have just one camera. We had five of them. Three of them were specifically trained on the dancer floor to film the competition dances on the stage. They had to follow those feet around. When it came to the set dancers, we would stay on their feet for three minutes. The main cameraman would follow those feet, because he had been doing it for the last three months, and he knew that dance was absolutely critical, that it needed to be filmed beautifully. He shot those close-ups himself.
Since you were there, how does watching a competition like this live differ from the experience of watching it in a movie?
Sue Bourne: How many times have I watched this film? I have been going to different film festivals all over the UK, and it may sound pathetic, but I still love watching it. (Laughs) In a way, watching it on the big screen with that close up detail, you see how fantastic this dancing is in a way you don't see sitting in the audience watching it. Especially someone like me, who is not an expert on dancing. I think its better to have it show up on camera, catching the speed of it all.
If this is your first time entering into this world, and you get your okay to shoot, how did you take that next step in finding the subjects you actually wanted to film?
Sue Bourne: All of the films I have done...I have a long track record of award winning films, and I think the essence of all good films is that you find fantastic characters that you cast very well. We took a long time talking to people, finding out where the interesting stories were, getting to know them. Building up trust between them. You are not going to get a good film if they are not comfortable with you, or in front of the camera. I think, if my films have any reputation at all, it's the quality of the interviews. They are very good because I spend ages with people. And they are really relaxed with me. The fact is, coming into this competition, these kids are in the most critic position of their entire lives. Dancing for a World Championship that they really want. They didn't mind us getting up there with them. They didn't mind waiting for the results and having a camera shoved in their face. Because they were so used to having us around. They trusted us. The intimacy and their willingness to talk? That took a long time. We invested a huge amount of time and effort in that. I spent a lot of time with these people, so I am asking them to share their thoughts and moments in life with me. I give them something back, so it's a course sort of relationship.
How did you coordinate the different schedules between these people who are all in different countries?
Sue Bourne: We had to organize the Worlds like a military operation. It was critical that wherever I go, we are following the characters. I brought in someone I had worked with before. I needed someone I could really trust. Someone who was very efficient. They had to help me run this. We had a team of twenty people, so it was a big deal. I had someone coordinating the Worlds. We had two different film crews doing fifteen-hour days back to back. That is how we had to do it. We all met at the Worlds, then we would split up when we knew we had to go follow somebody. It was a military operation.
And how do you think being their with these individuals changed the actual story that we are seeing play out on screen?
Sue Bourne: The art of documentary filmmaking is that you become a part of the woodwork. They don't notice you. Your presence shouldn't affect what is happening. You are there to observe life and record it. It shouldn't change what happens in any way. If we are honest, the presence of a camera crew is going to change things. But these people are as natural as you are going to get. They got used to having us around. I think they quite liked it. I think it gave them a bit of confidence. They certainly weren't uncomfortable with us. Maybe we distracted them from being nervous. I don't think our presence changed anything.