At Night They Dance (La Nuit, Elles Dansent): Cannes 2011 Review

Cannes Film Festival
An intriguing exotic world and colorful central figure are underserved by this rambling documentary.

Cairo belly dancer Madame Reda Ibrahim Mohamed Ali is an intriguing subject in this underdeveloped doc from Isabelle Lavigne and Stephane Thibault.

CANNES -- The matriarchal head of a belly-dancing dynasty, Madame Reda Ibrahim Mohamed Ali would make a natural pack leader on a reality show. The Real Housewives of Cairo, perhaps? But in French-Canadian filmmakers Isabelle Lavigne and Stephane Thibault’s shapeless and only sporadically engaging documentary, At Night They Dance, she cries out for tighter focus and more illuminating context.

A mother of seven, widowed five months before filming took place and with another baby on the way at age 42, Reda is a fabulous character. She’s like an Egyptian Mama Rose. She sits around in her humble home, surrounded by her brood, puffing on cigarettes and boasting about daughters who “came out of my womb dancing.”

In standard reality-show fashion, Reda spends much of her day defending or attacking her unmanageable offspring, all of whom she wants to carry on the family belly-dancing tradition. Bossy is sweet and easygoing but lazy and habitually late for bookings; flaky Amira angers clients by accepting deposits but not showing up to perform; and Hind has left home to escape her mother’s nagging over her pursuit of a married man.

Shooting private ceremonies with what appears to be a clandestine camera, the directors have gathered lots of up-close footage of wild partying and spirited dancing. But the film is generally more interesting when exploring the women’s personal lives, balancing the stigma and hazards attached to their work with their romantic lives or lack of them, and the struggle to keep the business ticking along.

If the shaky, often underlit camerawork has its down side, the fly-on-the-wall approach does convey the idea of privileged access to a secret world. But the documentary could actually use a little social context and big-picture journalistic detail. And while its loose structure is clearly a style choice, our time spent with this clan of squabbling women deserves a more satisfying arc. There’s a great story here but the filmmakers only outline it.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Directors’ Fortnight
Directors: Isabelle Lavigne, Stephane Thibault
Sales: Autlook Filmsales, Vienna
Production: Les Films du Tricycle
Producer: Lucie Lambert
Director of photography: Stephane Thibault
Music: Benoit Charest
Editor: Rene Roberge
No rating: 80 minutes