By Wesley Morris Globe Staff / April 23, 2010
Sometimes with documentaries, the best intentions have a way of making decent people look bad. “Dancing Across Borders’’ is a dismaying case in point. Ten years ago the socialite Anne Bass was on a trip to Cambodia. She caught a performance by a traditional Cambodian dance troupe, and the charisma of one 16-year-old so knocked her out that when Bass returned to the States, she pulled some strings and got the dancer an audition at the School of American Ballet in New York. The dancer, Sokvannara “Sy’’ Sar (it’s pronounced “See’’), had never danced ballet. But for two years, he trained with the dance instructor Olga Kostritsky, honed his skill, and became a success story.
In the film, the agents of Sy’s good fortune speak at length about how they refined his raw talent. Occasionally, they do this with Sy seated silently a foot away. Rehearsal and performance footage meant as progress reports for Sy’s family back in Cambodia are repurposed as the movie’s spine. Sy returns home to watch the kids perform at his old dance school and, in the final minutes, mentions how he no longer feels he belongs anywhere. It’s a rare self-reflective moment in a gauzy, dewy movie that accentuates the positive because it flatters his patrons, none more so than Bass, who happens to be the film’s director.
Objectivity is a mythical requirement for documentary. But perspective is a must. If it ever occurred to Bass that she risked the charge of vanity by using her already problematic charitable impulse to get a movie shown in the world’s art houses, we never see it. “Dancing Across Borders’’ — that title makes Sy’s experience seem so easy — avoids all the thorny culture clashes of East being shoehorned into West. It makes “The Blind Side’’ seem like a complex critique of race, class, and self-congratulation in the American South. Sy is less passive than the Michael Oher character in that film. But his life never seems entirely in his own hands, either.
Of course, it doesn’t feel like Bass set out to make a documentary at all. Well-meant though it may be, the movie has an advertorial gloss. It’s more convincing as the work of people looking to reap a return on their investment.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.
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