Review: DANCING ACROSS BORDERS
DANCING ACROSS BORDERS is a well-intended documentary about a 16-year-old boy named Sokvannara ‘Sy’ Sar. He’s a talented folk dancer in Cambodia where he’s ‘discovered’ by Anne Bass, a vacationing socialite who’s profoundly impressed with his amazing charm and grace as a dancer. Bass takes him under her wealthy wing and pulls some strings to get him enrolled at the New York School of American Ballet with some of this country’s best instructors. The film charts Sy’s progress through the demanding rituals of classical ballet as he devotes himself to learning this strange new dance (he’d never even seen ballet before he left home). Sy is indeed a charismatic subject, gifted performer, and natural showman but unfortunately Ms Bass, whose DANCING ACROSS BORDERS is her debut as a film director, has failed to make a movie that will be appreciated by an audience wider than dance aficionados and one that is limited by its ‘feel-good’ story arc and some avoidable technical limitations. Sy’s story is inspirational but it can’t quite transcend this poorly made film.
As DANCING ACROSS BORDERS tells Sy’s story, old footage and photos show him at the Wat Bo School in Cambodia, where he’s a leader and his teachers clearly love him. Sy does not begin formal ballet training until the ripe old age of 17 when he’s plopped into the New York school and towers over the other dancers who are all several years younger. His teachers seem to have no respect for the seven years of dance instruction he received in Cambodia, which one teacher brushes off as “a complete lack of training”. Another instructor ominously intones “Already the cards are stacked against him”, but of course Sy perseveres. He graduates from high school, goes back home to perform, and eventually winds up a star at Pacific Northwest Ballet. It’s all very nice but besides the inherent odds against Sy’s success, there’s little tension or drama to his story and the bulk of the film is comprised of dance. I mean lots and lots of dance and endless, repetitive rehearsal footage. Ballet enthusiasts who get excited about Demi Detournés and Fouetté jetés may find something to enjoy here, but a good documentary should engage the non-fan and DANCING ACROSS BORDERS left this reviewer cold. Sar is constantly on screen, but beyond seeing what a great dancer he is, I never felt like I got to know him. Anne Bass unfortunately avoids the ‘fish out of water’ culture clashes showing how this young man adapts to his new surroundings and the film suffers by skipping the immigrant experience. There’s too little of Sy’s life outside the dance hall and it’s clear Bass didn’t have an initial vision of where her documentary was heading. She began videotaping her subject so that she could keep his relatives back home apprised of his progress in New York in terms of his dancing and the concept of a full-blooded documentary seems an afterthought. Worst of all, much of the dance footage is shot on a low-tech camcorder that not only loses much definition when projected on the big screen, but it’s framed like something a parent might shoot from the middle row of their kid’s high school dance recital with countless zooms and handheld shakiness. There are many dull talking head interviews with dance teachers and too few with Sy himself, who when on camera is surprisingly candid about his homesickness (he wistfully recalls fishing in rice fields) and his feelings toward America and ballet. Bass may be a good-hearted patron of the arts but DANCING ACROSS BORDERS seems amateurish and it’s clear she’s no filmmaker.
While DANCING ACROSS BORDERS is refreshingly agenda-free in terms of politics, it ultimately made me wonder about the motives of Ms Bass, who’s in the unique position of being personally responsible for having this story to tell in the first place. Sy didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived in the U.S. and when Bass meets him at the airport she declares “Oh, dear. He looks so, helpless! I guess he’s my responsibility now!” as if she’s adopted a new kitten. Ms Bass is apparently a well-known socialite in Manhattan and the ex-wife of billionaire investor Sid Bass and at times DANCING ACROSS BORDERS comes off as a vanity project financed by someone with very deep pockets. While I’m sure Sy’s chance at the American dream is ultimately better than life in Cambodia, Sar seems to have mixed feelings about his fate, clearly misses his family back home, and speaks of his loneliness in New York. DANCING ACROSS BORDERS opens today (June 4) at the Tivoli in St. Louis and Sokvannara ‘Sy’ Sar and Anne Bass will be on hand to speak and answer questions after tonight’s 7:15 screening.