The hard knocks endured by a belly-dancing family in working-class Cairo are translated with artistry and compassion by Quebec filmmaking team Isabelle Lavigne and Stephane Thibault in “At Night, They Dance.” Pic reminds that Quebec is second to none as a center of fascinating indie North American film production. Seldom has Egypt’s capital been so evocatively captured through a domestic prism, and fests should line up to grab this gem.
A dazzling display of physical pleasure and emotional pain unfolds in the film, which rightly starts with a sequence observing the daughters of veteran dancer Reda (now retired, and a widow) belly dancing at a wedding party. None of the dancers — all of them ID’d solely by first name — are especially brilliant or gifted; the film’s clear intent is to eavesdrop on a typical clan of the kind of dancers that lend Cairo nights their special air.
After the party, things grow rougher and bitter, as Reda spars with her older relatives, seemingly uncaring that a camera is capturing her words and actions. Even worse are the tensions that fester between Reda and headstrong youngest daughter, 15-year-old Hind, who eventually takes over the film with her adolescent turmoil. Such frankness among Arabic women is all too rare in film, and the fact that a pair of Canadians was granted such trust and access in this household makes “At Night, They Dance” something of a landmark.
As with Lavigne’s and Thibault’s “Junior,” which focused on a Canadian junior hockey league, blunt reality is balanced with a sophisticated visual palette: There are images in “At Night” that are achingly beautiful, counterpointed with the emotional tugs-of-war going on in these rooms. The domestic drama contrasts with the joy of the belly dancing gigs — raucous, outdoor events that are completely, if jarringly, dominated by men, with Reda’s daughters the only women in sight.
Occasionally, documentaries suggest the filmmakers’ sheer excitement that they’re actually capturing the moment in which they find themselves, and this is perhaps the most vivid quality that permeates “At Night, They Dance.” Much of this due to Thibault’s extraordinary cinematography, sometimes achieved in hyper-cramped spaces, and Lavigne’s acute sound work. Rene Roberge’s editing is subtly in tune with the ebb and flow of events.