At Night, They Dance

Isabelle LavigneStéphane Thibault

Canada, 2011, 80 mins

This is one family’s story. The film takes us into the heart of a clan of women, in which the art of belly dancing has been passed down from mother to daughter since time immemorial. Filmed in Cairo, the film takes an unsentimental yet lyrical look at a hidden world full of surprise and fascination. The viewer is allowed in as a privileged witness.

Not to undermine the often sophisticated portrayal of a family of belly dancers in working-class Cairo, but there are moments in At Night, They Dance when catty female fury explodes across the living room of central character Reda’s home and it feels like a daytime talk show. A circle of quibbling women rant about their children, their husbands and their finances, calling each other ‘bitches’ and ‘whores’ while chain smoking. Female trouble is indeed  female trouble, even when they speak Arabic and sit on woven rugs with headscarves instead of hairspray. Though providing no historical or social context of modern Cairo outside the frame, Canadian Lavigne and Thibault have compiled an intensely personable portrait of generations of women struggling to survive in a world ruled by men and determined by God.

Reda Ibrahim Mohamed Ali, a retired dancer herself, is a 42year old widowed mother of seven with another baby on the way. As the proprietor of her family’s belly dancing tradition, Reda copes with physical and emotional pain while remaining headstrong about her daughters and their line of work. She spends most of the film sitting on her living room floor, excusing and attacking their behavior to her friends and mother, while ensuring that they earn their keep from the all-male nightclubs they shake for.At one point Reda defends her older daughter Amira after she abandoned an obligation to dance at a wedding. Reda assures the groom that her daughter is sick from the drugs she takes, alluding to the even darker and infectious underbelly of the dance culture.

Divorce has always been considered a hateful and despicable act in Islam

But the issue is never raised again during the film, nor do we witness Amira’s struggle with drugs, or her debts: another partial conflict that is bypassed. The only turmoil we do see Amira endure is a break-up with her boyfriend Mahmoud, who disapproves of her dancing. The scene is particularly difficult to watch as an almost humorous family fight erupts into violence when boyfriend Mahmoud grabs Amira by the hair and slams her head into the concrete wall in front of her family, who do nothing in reaction. Amira’s situation is remedied by the end of the film after accepting an offer of marriage from a seemingly gentler suitor who loves her regardless of her profession.

Marriage is another common topic of conversation among the women in At Night, They Dance. A friend of Reda’s threatens to divorce her husband because he is too involved with Reda’s 15-year-old dancer daughter, Hind. Again, we see Reda defending her daughter’s child-like flirtations that should not be taken to heart. In a later interview with Hind – the only moment where the filmmakers use direct interview techniques – the young girl admits she loves this much older married man, though he would never break up his home.

Though the gaze is male, the perspective is indeed female

Though toying with her cell phone and batting her pretty eyes with the naivety of a teenage girl, Hind speaks eloquently and maturely about her chances with the man. She is certain that if she offered herself to him, he would likely take her virginity, make her ‘a woman’ and then eventually go back to his wife. In fact, divorce rates have been steadily on the rise in Egypt, though it has always been considered a hateful and despicable act in Islam, especially if instigated by a woman. But a growing number of women are demanding divorces and seeking marriage counseling, and the women in the film speak quite freely about the subject like any dissatisfied wife in the West. Though At Night, They Dance does, literally, get behind the veil of a culture of women who must cover up for God and uncover for men when the club curtains are drawn, the film is also missing some much-needed context. At times, it’s difficult to navigate the relationships among the women and to determine who is who exactly. But it also neglects certain facts or figures about the tradition and trajectory of the belly dancing culture in Islam and in Egypt. Of course, the intent here is to let the eavesdropping ‘direct cinema’ approach speak for itself, but somehow the film feels too zoomed in and we’re left with a desire to step outside slightly and see the bigger picture.

Of course, there are moments that expose us to the danger of the dance. Young Hind complains that her mother has no regard for her safety or protection – she might get raped, stabbed, or have acid thrown on her face. Towards the end of the film, Hind is arrested for dancing in a club underage. Though Reda is at first hesitant to rescue her daughter,
after some encouragement from a friend the two women ride in a cab through the night, searching for clues as to her daughter’s whereabouts. The taxi driver offers his two cents: the Cairo police are corrupt and make more money than traffickers. It cannot be denied that Reda’s character saves this meandering film.
Her strong stone face and ice blue eyes speak volumes about her struggles, and in a story that is seemingly arc-less, Reda’s emotional contours are shapely enough to give the film form. The cinematography should also be applauded, not only for its privileged access, but also for its hypnotic sequences of secret celebrations in the club Alexandria – so crammed with atmosphere it would make any set designer weep. The reverberating cries of the melodic male singers meld with the low-angled shots of the make-up caked dancers. All the sexiness has been squandered through the sheer sadness we know exists beyond their barren bellies. Though the gaze is male, the perspective is indeed female. The artistic intentions of At Night, They Dance come through, but the focus is lost in the film’s own amazement over its insider access to a clandestine world. Internationally premiering this year at Cannes, the timing of the film also falls short. Having been shot the previous year, the release of At Night, They Dance comes after the Arab Spring, through no fault of the filmmakers, of course. In one scene, Amira is quoted as calling Mubarak ‘a son of a bitch’ in public and thus shaming her mother. And so while we’re watching how the characters struggle in an oppressive society, we know that the situation is changing in Cairo. For some this might provide some sense of relief – for others, the film might feel just a tad misplaced.