Writer, director, and journalist Jawad Rhalib presents a timely exploration of Muslim identity in relation to artistic expression and harmful stereotypes, through archival footage, interviews, and evocative performances.
When Arabs Danced
A bold corrective to narrow notions about what it means to be Muslim, director Jawad Rhalib's When Arabs Danced is also a stirring testament to the power of art to reconfigure identity. Beginning with Rhalib's memories of childhood shame regarding his mother's belly dancing, the film quickly expands its purview from personal essay to cultural investigation.
Rhalib visits several countries and documents diverse creative endeavours, each constrained by fundamentalist repression within the Muslim world and xenophobic stereotypes outside of it. A Belgian theatre company stages an adaptation of Michel Houellebecq's incendiary novel Submission and grapples with thorny ethical questions raised by its Islamophobic views. An Egyptian contemporary dance troupe develops work that transgresses current prohibitions against bodily expression. Palestinian actor Hiam Abbas (The Visitor) rehearses a bristling solo performance confronting fearful, violent attitudes toward female sexuality.
As invested in mood as it is in message, When Arabs Danced forgoes conventional artist-profile tropes in favour of a weave of rehearsals, conversations, performances, and a trove of archival materials that remind us of the long and often sensual history of dance and music found throughout the Arab world.
Our media is plagued with images and rhetoric that reduce Muslim culture to terror and tragedy. Rhalib's passionate work — which won Best Film in the Grand Angle section at Visions du Réel and also received the Audience Award — remedies this with scene after scene in which that same culture is shown to be infused with expressions of beauty, provocation, and movement... and could not feel more fiercely alive.