Friday, October 21, 2011

They Like To Move It, Move It

When Dreamworks released its full-length animated feature, Madagascar, on May 27, 2005 audiences enthusiastically took to King Julien XIII's solo, "I Like To Move It." A sequel (Madagascar 2: Escape To Africa) was released in November of 2008 and the next installment (Madagascar 3) will be released on June 8, 2012. Music videos based on Madagascar's boisterous theme song include the following two gems:

From dancing penguins to Lady Gaga, from Michael Jackson to those who audition for So You Think You Can Dance?, people who like to move their bodies to music and rhythm usually can't wait for a chance to strut their stuff. In some cases, shaking their moneymaker can lead to a major career.

Two films recently screened at the 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival focused on young performers with the potential to build a career out of their unique talents. One film soared on the wings of optimism, talent, energy, and hard work. The other crashed and burned in one of the worst bait-and-switch marketing pitches I've seen in years.

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Written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Isabelle LavigneAt Night They Dance purports to be a documentary about the lives of belly dancers in Cairo. The film's publicity blurb states:
"Seldom has Egypt's capital been so evocatively captured. A fly-on-the-wall doc exploring the mysterious and hard-knock reality of a typical Egyptian belly dancer clan in working-class Cairo. Unparalleled access to this hidden world leaves the viewer fascinated and surprised that at night they dance. Such frankness among Arabic women is all too rare in film …"
If you were hoping to see a film that featured belly dancing, forget it. Most of At Night They Dance is spent listening to a miserable middle-aged shrew with a cell phone who is essentially pimping out young girls to dance at weddings and other celebrations. Her dancers seem much more interested in taking drugs or getting married so they can stop dancing or simply escape her shrill tantrums.

While the film includes scenes in which men bargain for the services of belly dancers (as the girls apply their makeup and make excuses for not showing up for gigs), the protagonist is a bitter mother of seven whose visit to a gynecologist does not make for gripping documentary footage. In fact, the scenes in which men dance with each other (or for an audience of men) have a homoerotic undercurrent that is far more compelling than anything else in Lavigne's lame documentary.

If you want to see an evocative portrait of Cairo, watch 2009's stunning Cairo Time, starring Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddiq. But don't waste your time watching At Night They Dance. This film is a colossal dud centering on young women who are not just oppressed and exploited, but bored out of their minds. Here's the trailer:

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Infinitely more satisfying is Circus Dreams. Subtitled "A Movie Journey From Mud To Magic," Signe Taylor's documentary focuses on a collection of aspiring teenagers who audition to perform with Circus Smirkus (an award-winning international youth circus founded in 1987 that is struggling to stay afloat in tough economic times).

Over the course of two decades, more than 4,000 teens have participated in the company's annual summer camp, where they receive training in all sorts of performance skills ranging from juggling and clowning to Rolla Bolla, unicycle, and stilt walking; from hula hoops, trapeze, and lyra work to making balloon animals and throwing pies in each other's faces.

If you've ever attended a performance by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus or Cirque du Soleil and wondered how people can be so confident while suspended in mid-air, Circus Dreams takes viewers backstage to watch circus professionals coach youngsters in the physical stunts and comic gags that have become a standard part of the repertoire. The film also includes a segment in which the entire camp suffers from a bout of food poisoning.

Poster art for Circus Dreams

Taylor's documentary is thoroughly grounded in reality, whether it deals with the audition process, performers struggling to come up to grade, a standard comedy act that is not working as well when cast with women, or the white-knuckle financial challenges facing Circus Smirkus founder, Rob Mermin.

Even with acrobats facing injuries (and clowns and aerialists who can't stop vomiting), Circus Dreams is the kind of feel-good documentary that shows bright, energetic young performers with a can-do spirit who enjoying the most intense bonding experience of their lives. Watching brothers Jacob and Nathaniel Sharpe strengthening their Diabolo skills or Joy Powers and Maddy Hall turn the standard male-oriented clown routines upside down is often thrilling. Here's the trailer:

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