TIFF review: When Arabs Danced

Documentary about the challenges facing Muslim artists is a provocation and a celebration of creative freedom and beauty

WHEN ARABS DANCED DOCS Jawad Rhalib. Belgium. 84 minutes. Sep 13, 6:15 pm, AGO Sep 14, 9:45 pm, Scotiabank 8 Sep 15, 2:15 pm, Scotiabank 7. See listing. Rating: NNNN

Rhalib’s exploration of the challenges Muslim artists face as both fundamentalism and Islamophobia grip their communities is a powerful tribute to creativity’s driving force.

The doc begins with beleaguered dancers discussing the historical roots of their practice. The first modern dance was inspired by Egyptian culture, says one, and another contends that dance is closer to praying than anything the domineering clerics demand of them.

Some women declare their desire to express their sexuality freely and “be themselves,” in ways that are uncritical of the gendered expectations in sex and the male gaze, but that’s a minor quibble.

Palestinian actor Hiam Abbas’s blistering solo piece on violence against women is unforgettable and a section in which a Belgian theatre troupe debates how to stage Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission without appearing to advance Muslim stereotypes is electrifying.

This is a celebration of artistic freedom and beauty – and a provocation.

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