Movie poster for the documentary 'Jig'

Could Jig be the sleeper
hit documentary of 2011?

Is it just me, or does the trailer for Jig, a documentary about the World Irish Dancing Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, that opened in U.S. theaters last weekend, remind you of Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom? Those latter two films, released in 2002 and 2005, respectively, helped define a hot doc micro-niche: the cute kid contest. I’d be shocked if you don’t also see the connection.
I’d venture to say that whoever cut the high-paced, tragicomic cuteness of the trailer is banking on viewers making that same link, hoping it would draw similar audiences (Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom grossed about $6 million and $8 million domestically, according to Box Office Mojo).
In fact, the trailer makes the film look so delightful (it looks like it’s fun for the whole family, as they say), I thought it would be a kick to bring my 7-year-old daughter to her first documentary in a theater. I could use her as a one-person focus group, and determine if Jig is indeed fun for the whole family.
Alas, when I showed her the trailer, she shook her head and said, “That doesn’t look good,” in a way that I knew no amount of popcorn and chocolate bribery could sway her.
I understood. Docs don’t quite have the wow factor of a Pixar film. So, with low expectations, I took off for the itsy-bitsy, artsy Quad theater on 13th street in Manhattan… on my own.

Call me naïve. I think of the Quad as a very indie theater where you can catch throwaway releases of cerebral obscura. I wasn’t prepared to see a theater overflowing with a hundred or so chattering teens and tweens and their cargo-clad moms. They were hugging, laughing, taking photos of each other in front of the Jig poster, electrified as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert. When the usher announced that seating would begin for the film, their accompanying deafening squeal-cheer made me wonder what kind of world it would be if a Charles Ferguson doc could garner such enthusiasm from America’s youth.
In the crowd, there was Chris, father to Ellie, who, no doubt like 90 percent of the girls in attendance, was a rabid Irish dancer. Ellie’s also an athlete and a singer, so she’s got things in perspective. As does Laura, a ninth grader who’s been dancing since she was in second grade, but who also fences and sings. All of the people I spoke with seemed to know about this movie for months. It was definitely playing to the home crowd.
The movie itself is quite good. It’s well-filmed, well-told and manages to skillfully weave together the storylines of several dancers as they work their way toward the championship in Glasgow. The characters are endearing — girls and boys with big dreams and tough, little hearts (and some mothers with questionable parental priorities) — the sort you’d expect in a film like this. And the dancing is fantastic. I never watched more than a minute of that whole Michael Flatley-River Dance craze, and I’m glad I didn’t. These kids are a great introduction to the impossibly goat-like, whirling, hopping, leaping and kicking that’s involved. It’s rare that something can be so thrilling and so amusing to watch. OK, maybe a Jackie Chan movie comes close.
But is it everyone’s cup of tea? Seeing the sold out crowd at the Quad, I felt like I was a witness to a revolution, that this could be a phenomenon about to sweep the nation. Jig was just released in five theaters in five cities (New York City, Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston), all of which have strong Irish dance communities. But can it cross over? The distributor is going to have to wait and see.
I asked director Sue Bourne to weigh in on this question on the Monday after. She says she was “delighted” to see that Jig did better than the Sundance winner Buck (an estimated $65,000 vs. $64,400, according to Box Office Mojo). She sees it a good indicator that Jig could have, yes, legs. I’ve edited her answers a bit for clarity and brevity.
Doc Soup Man: It’s hard not to think about docs like Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom when considering Jig. What hope do you have about attracting the same audiences that those films did? Or is Irish dancing too niche?
Sue Bourne: I think these days documentary features are a much harder sell than previously, but I think Jig could do really well. It is a universal story with universal appeal. It may be set in the dancing world but it is about much more than that. It is about family life, about parenting, about what you are/are not willing to do for your children, about drive, ambition, passion.  So, I think it has the ability to cross over into the wider market in the way that both Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom did. But they were a good decade ago and I think it is much harder now for documentary features to be that successful.
We know that if we can get the film into cinemas we will be able to pack those cinemas out, in certain regions, with Irish dancers and their family and friends initially. There is the wider Irish American community — there are 36 million Americans claiming Irish ancestry and while they won’t all be Irish dance devotees there will be a good number keen to see Jig. Word of mouth is critical to the success of Jig and we have access to a wide network to help us spread the word.
I was surprised to see the Saturday afternoon screening sold out to such a rabid following. Can you describe the sort of reaction you’ve been getting?
Sue Bourne: The reaction has been fantastic. They really all do love the film — with a passion. Our website, Twitter, Facebook, etc., is totally inundated with positive responses. What they are saying they love most about it is the fact that now they can take their friends, who know nothing about Irish dancing and think it is all a bit weird, along to see Jig and they will finally understand what it is all about. I think most of the screenings were sold out or nearly sold out.
There is an enormous clamor for the film to be shown across the rest of the country. So following this one week of screenings, we then hope to roll it out across America. Obviously our main target will be cities with large Irish dance communities because they are initially our core audience. But as word spreads other people will hear about the film and go and see it too. We hope.
The filming is impressive and comprehensive. Can you quantify what went into the making (such as time spent) of the film?
Sue Bourne: I began work on Jig in March 2009 when we found out the Worlds [the World Irish Dancing Championships] were being held in Glasgow the following year. It took us a long time to get access to make the film — no outsider had ever been allowed in to make a film before. We researched the film for eight months before we started filming — finding the stories, visiting the characters, deciding who would be in the film.
And where and how did you get the financing?
Sue Bourne: We self funded till the September, by which time we then had about 90 percent of the budget in place. The film was almost fully funded by BBC Scotland and BBC London and Creative Scotland. There was a shortfall of about £70,000 that we got in the final stages of the edit when we signed up with a film agent. We were lucky to get funded by so few partners and to get the bulk of our budget up front.
The BBC funded it for television and only gave us a limited theatrical window which meant that we were unable to spend a lot of time taking the film round film festivals — we had to get it out and into cinemas quickly in advance of the BBC transmission.  Initially BBC were thinking of transmitting the film in February of this year but eventually we persuaded them to wait till after Hot Docs and Sheffield, which they agreed to. They are now showing the film — its television premiere — in September.

When I consider the success of dancing boy Brit flick Billy Elliot as a film and as a Broadway show, I am willing to venture that Jig is going to be the sleeper doc hit of 2011. It may not have had the appeal to attract my daughter, but because of Jig, kids across the U.S. could be flocking to a documentary for the first time this year.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen