Friday, March 28, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008: Underbelly

I'd planned to start the EFC/HBS review for this one with something about how curious it is the the Middle East gave us both the burqa and the celebration of the female form that is belly dancing, but scrapped that soon after the movie stated that belly dancing antedates Islam by thousands of years. Still, considering how far away this art is from the way we perceive that part of the world now, it is kind of amazing how cultures change.

It was a fun screening, with the filmmaker in attendance and a belly dancing demonstration beforehand. One thing I hadn't realized before the director Steve Balderson started talking was that I had seen one of his previous films at Fantasia two and a half years ago, and it's interesting to look back at that review and see that, for example, his tendency to mix black and white and color had annoyed me a bit back then, too, or that the star of Underbelly had worked with him on Firecracker.

One thing he said in the Q&A that kind of amused me was a comment that for a documentary, he likes using grainier stock or video because that makes it look more "real", like someone's home movies. I don't deny the effect, but I wonder how long that aesthetic will last now that there are 1080p camcorders available for less than a thousand bucks on Amazon. The next generation's home movies are going to look pretty good, detail-wise, so in a few years filmmakers won't have that crutch to lean on.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2008 at the Brattle Theater (BUFF X)

It's fitting that woman that Underbelly spends the most time following has the name "Pleasant". If this movie makes the audience feel bad about anything - even having misconceptions about its subject - it is likely entirely by accident. As an overview of belly dancing and and introduction to one of its better-known American practitioners, it is, well, pleasant.

Pleasant Gehman, that is. In the 1970s and 1980s, she was a fixture on the L.A. music scene as a party girl, fan, and writer, and then in the early 1990s she learned belly dancing and it took over her life. Now, she dances under the name "Princess Farhana", books other dancers for gigs in the Los Angeles area, and teaches dance to others. The film spends a year with her as she travels the world, dancing and teaching at various events and talking about the controversy she stirred up within that community when she merged burlesque with belly dancing.

We learn some basic facts about belly dancing over the course of the movie; that it's arguably the oldest continuously practiced art form in the world, originally spread by the Romany as they traveled around the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain where it was a huge influence on flamenco. There are several styles, notably Egyptian and Tribal, with Tribal being more open to outside influences, leading to "Tribal Fusion" which incorporates a variety of western dance styles. Director Steve Balderson doesn't go into a lot of detail here; just enough to make sure the audience knows enough to understand what the interview subjects are talking about (and doesn't necessarily think of the dance primarily in terms of titillation).

Mostly, we're talking to Gehman and her friends, and you probably couldn't ask for a more enjoyable documentary subject. She's got a ton of funny stories at her disposal, and always seems well-aware that today's irritation is the price for having a new story to tell tomorrow. She laughs a lot and draws laughter from the people around her, but is also willing to confess her anxieties and describe the dissatisfaction she was feeling with her body when she discovered belly dancing. We also get to see and hear what makes her such a good teacher, from her positive attitude to her knack for breaking complex processes down to bits that can be mastered individually.

As delilghtful as Pleasant is, Balderson sometimes seems a little too enamored of her. At times we're not sure whether he's making a movie about belly dancing or about Gehman; the film will get into interesting topics about the art form that don't have much to do with her until, inevitably, it leads to people saying how great Pleasant is. The last twenty minutes or so are spent on burlesque, which feels like a detour away from what the audience came to see. The style is also distracting, with everything in black and white except for performance bits, which seem to be recorded on consumer equipment.

It's a nice little movie. If you're looking for a movie about belly dancing, this might come off as somewhat slight, but Pleasant Gehman is a nifty subject herself.

Also at HBS.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That does sound fun. I think it's good, in a way, for documentaries to focus on one or two human beings than on too broad of a subject. If, say, This Film is Not Yet Rated had contained only facts and no interviews with impassioned filmmakers, it wouldn't have been nearly as effective.