Gilded Serpent presents...
Bellydancer, the Film
Review by Karin
April 10, 2005
On April 8, 2005, I had the opportunity
to view the much ballyhooed film by Ark Enterprises and Miles
Copeland, a venture that is part of his efforts to promote his
views of the American "bellydance" scene in conjunction
with the troupe of his creation, the "Bellydance Superstars."
I have never met Miles, but I have seen 2 shows in person of the
Bellydance Superstars in performances in Brooklyn
and Manhattan. I am
also familiar with the debates in the Middle Eastern Dance community
about this project from the start.
some ways, the film was better throughout than I expected
(less T & A, and more about the business of show business).
see very limited market appeal for it though; we dancers would
likely see it (just once) to watch people that we recognize.
The film was
being shown twice in an art house location in the East Village
with about 200 seats, and neither showing was more than half full
(This is in New York City!). Miles makes much (in many of his
communications with the dance community as well as in the film)
of his intentions to reach a wider mainstream audience with his
BDSS franchise, and supposedly this film is to be a vehicle for
such a crossover. But this film is certainly not something that
I see Miles' supposed target audience- the mainstream- running
out to see or telling their friends to see. It has a very insider
feeling, and much of it would be hard to understand outside the
context of the dance scene.
do like how he allowed himself to be put on the spot, perhaps
as a deliberate foil, but the film fails to fulfill his promises
of showing why the mainstream should appreciate this dance.
If I were
not already a dancer, I am not sure that seeing this film would
convince me that I needed to see this dance in any venue.
The film got
off to a fairly good start and was on its way somewhere with all
the great up-front quotes, the depiction of a 90 year old dancer
and some footage of heavier dancers, but then it just left that
great opening in the dust and diverged to some of Ark's
internal debates. In the same way, the later introduction of male
dancers (besides the fact that the first cross-dressing male shouldn't
even have been shown, as he was in no way representative of males
on the scene) was just left hanging after the clip with Tarik
The film had a major identity crisis: is it a documentary?
an ad for BDSS? an exoneration of Miles? BDSS: the tour??- and
did none of those things well. Mile's film did not address any
of these possibilities with clarity!
In any case,
what exactly is "American Bellydance" and, as opposed
to what? The film didn't address that either. The MTV/ home video
style that dominated throughout made much of it hard to watch-
that stuff works great on shorts, or for shorter sections of longer
films but here it was overused. Some very good, on-target footage
was clipped too soon and some "artistic pauses" were
senselessly placed, seemingly emphasizing irrelevant or tangential
stuff to the detriment of more substantive stuff. Also the one
thing that would have helped the film a lot, more actual dance
footage, was in short supply- perhaps so people will buy the DVD?
The one continuous section of dance footage toward the end was
actually clips of several different dances strung together to
an altogether different soundtrack that sometimes made the dancers
look out of sync with the music.
was way too much extraneous, irrelevant footage for my taste.
One sound bite of the suicide was enough for me. I did not
need the additional 30 seconds. All
of that bs about security in Bali
seemed too long; having shown clips of the bombing was sufficient
to set the stage. Overall, there was too much footage of
that "dancer-in-the-woods" and besides what relevance
is the fact that Mohamed Atta was in one audience? They could
have made better use of more of the fast motion effect of
the getting-on-and-off-the bus sequences which would have conveyed
the hectic goings-on and could have eliminated some of the chit-chat.
Suhaila footage was good and added spice, the context and reasons
for the importance to the dance community of that particular debate
are not made clear to a non-dance audience because the nature
of the dance and its origins are never delved into. Basically,
it's insider stuff.
from some quotes here and there about the dance, real authorities
got short shrift.
It would have
been far better if Morocco, for example, had not been restricted
to short sound bites only; I'll bet she contributed plenty more
useful context in that interview that ended up on the cutting
effort at context relied instead on cobbled together images and
unsupported statements and was awkward at best. Some jarringly
inappropriate political footage did nothing to enlighten the viewer
as to the real political or cultural issues underlying the dance,
or how the dance could possibly serve as a cultural bridge. Especially
with the later discussion regarding the dancer-as-prostitute stereotype,
a viewer not already familiar with Middle Eastern culture would
likely be confused as to why anyone would think this dance could
be a cultural bridge.
got, along with Rashid Taha's new cd, a free 40 minute promotional
DVD all about Rashid's Mexican Tour; it was boring to watch the
first time & only had a few good scenes worth watching so
it was certainly not worth watching twice. This BDSS film reminds
me a LOT of that, now that I think of it. Basically in both cases,
the filmakers failed to make their content relevant to the audience.
And neither one succeeds as a documentary.
far as documentary goes, anyone who would like an excellent behind
the scenes look at the BDSS tour can read Dondi's excellent series
on the subject, written while she was on the road with the troupe,
which is hopefully still up on her website.
A lot of the
dance footage, while scarce, was great, and would have added much
to the movie if more had been included. How could it have hurt
to show a full 30 seconds of Morocco's
fabulous shimmies, or Rachel's incredibly sinuous moves, or Bellyqueen's
tight synchronicity instead of the occasional 2 second clip? The
enchantment of the dance is in the marriage of the movement and
the music, and this movie is so busy doing everything and anything
else that the enchantment got lost. It is my sincere hope that
Miles will re-edit this film to recapture the magic and to develop
better context before he allows a general release of a film that
currently does not do justice to the Superstars or the dance.
10, 2005, Post Script:
Miles and Suhaila
mug for the camera yet again. Here at the BDSS show in the
winter of 2005 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco
Since the foregoing review was written, I have had the
opportunity to view the resulting DVD, which is currently being
released. Seeing the movie a second time only reconfirmed my original
views. I was looking forward, though, to the promised "40
minutes of bonus footage," hoping to see more extensive interviews
with some of the experts presented in the feature. However, Miles
chose instead to include a bit more road footage, likely excluded
from the film due to sound quality & other issues, and interviews
with others, such as Marta Schill, percussionist
Mary Ellen Donald,
and Fahtiem, that had not made it into the feature.
with Mary Ellen Donald is the standout here- nearly half the extra
40 minutes of footage is an in depth interview with her telling
how she got started with the dance and Middle Eastern rhythms. Delightful
as this interview is, it's presence on the DVD only serves to highlight
how little of this sort of thing made its way into the original
feature to provide much needed context. Most missing in action are
fuller versions of interviews with prominent experts in the dance,
most obviously Morocco
with her 45 years of immersion in the history and culture, Tarik
Sultan regarding men in this dance (a subject I actually
got the feeling that Miles was trying to avoid), and Jamila
Salimpour, who only had a cameo in the film and could certainly
have shed light on the development of American forms of the dance.
On the bright
side, there is a bonus compilation CD including tracks by Hakim,
Oojami, Khaled, Rachid
Taha, Cheb Mami, and others.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
Comments On American
Bellydancer Film Review by Gregory Burke
documentary film or video is made up of "real" images
constructed in such a way to reflect the point of view of its
maker. So a documentary film is a fiction, especially when financed
by its key subject.
Belly Dance Super Stars
by Amina Goodyear
and Directed by Jonathan Brandeis Executive Producer: Miles Copeland.
"... However, as there is no audience,
most of the dancers have a difficult time conveying the emotions
of the dance to the video viewer. Only Jillina and Dondi seem
to overcome this obstacle. "
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