TIFF 2011 Q&A: ‘First Position’ director Bess Kargman

A scene from 'First Position'.

One of the biggest surprises at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has been Bess Kargman’s beautiful and thoughtful documentary, First Position. The film follows six young ballet dancers as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix — a competition that could make or break their future in the ballet world. Kargman’s passion for her subject shines through and she has made a true masterpiece, a great feat for a first-time director.

Criticize This! spoke with Kargman about the film and what it means to get into TIFF. Read our Q&A below.

Brian McKechnie: What led you to document this topic?

Bess Kargman: My entire childhood I danced ballet. I always had this huge love for it. This is my first film and I knew I had to have an area of expertise because I had the disadvantage of being a first-time director. A lot of very well-known production companies were vying to do this film… to get exclusive access to the competition. I had to basically convince them to choose me, this nobody, and the reason I won them over was because of this love of ballet I have and this background.

BM: Was it difficult finding kids to participate?

BK: There’s 5,000 kids every year who compete so the pool of kids to choose from was very large. But I had some requirements. It was very important to me that I had a lot of diversity in terms of geographic location, socio-economic status, in terms of love of dance. I wanted to show the range. Some kids are absolutely obsessed with ballet and others just aren’t. I really wanted to show different ages because ballet for a little kid is very different than ballet for a 17-year-old. I wanted the stakes to be different for each character in the film.

BM: How long did you follow the kids?

BK: I followed them for nearly a year.

BM: Over that time was there anything that surprised you about them or the ballet world?

BK: It’s this hunger and this obsession with ballet that will continue to surprise me. How you can be 7 years old and know what you want to do for the rest of your life. Other things that surprised me are what people are willing to do to their bodies and the true cost of ballet. I danced my entire childhood but was spared from all of the sticker shock because I was little. Some tutus cost $2,000 and you wear them twice. It’s really, really shocking how expensive ballet can be.

BM: Was the competition open to you filming there?

BK: I had to convince them why I should be there. I had to meet with the board to get exclusive access and it was a labour of love to woo them. A lot of [people] had been trying to do this before but wanted to make it more of a reality TV type thing and I really wanted to have more of a rounded, meaningful portrayal of what it means to have a dream at such a young age.

BM: Being your first film, what was the biggest lesson you learned?

BK: It’s a very delicate balance for a filmmaker to know when to push and when to pull back. When you can go into a dressing room where a girl is crying and not feel like you’re being intrusive. It’s a trust thing and was important to me to earn all the kids’ trust. There are some moments where a few of them got really raw with their emotions and I don’t think that would have happened if I didn’t have that trust.

BM: How has getting it into TIFF helped the film?

BK: Since it got into TIFF my phone has been ringing off the hook. Right now people [seem to] be craving a non-social issue driven documentary. There’s amazing documentaries about very serious issues going on in the world, but there’s a lot of interest in something a little lighter and joyful. TIFF got it on people’s radars and in about a week I’ll find out if it makes it into movie theatres or not. The next few days will be interesting for the future of the film and my future as well.

BM: What do you plan to follow First Position up with?

BK: I have some ideas for a narrative film and a TV show. I’m thinking about taking a year off to work on a non-documentary topic and then go back to do another documentary. Documentaries are my first love though.

First Position screens at TIFF on September 17 at 12:30 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information, visit tiff.net.

Top image: A scene from First Position.

Brian McKechnie

About Brian McKechnie

Brian McKechnie is the founder and editor of Criticize This! Email him at brian@criticizethis.ca.