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Step this way

by The Concordian August 30, 2011
Every year, cinephiles in Montreal gather to take in the sights of foreign lands and sounds of words they couldn’t dream of pronouncing for the World Film Festival.
The beauty of the festival comes from the juxtaposition of films. There is something enticing about sitting down in a dark theatre, ready to jump from a Flemish coming-of-age story to a Swedish horror movie.
Such contrast was present for two films – Belgian dance flick Dancing With Travolta (Dansen met Travolta) and French/Algerian/Moroccan hybrid documentary Tagnawittude, which were shown back-to-back one night.
Dancing with Travolta tells the story of young aspiring dancer Heleen. By day, she works as a roller-skating waitress at her boyfriend Koen’s restaurant. But by night, she — what else? — indulges her only passion, which is moving her feet to any conceivable beat. When she hears there’s going to be a contest where the prize is to dance with her hero, John Travolta (whose poster she longingly sighs at in between serving meals) she, of course, jumps at the chance.
But it wouldn’t be a dance movie without some drama. Heleen quickly comes to the halting realization that she cannot win the contest without dancing with her ex-flame (and first class d-bag) John.
While the plot is fairly predictable in all its “well-meaning girl caught between two lovers” glory, this sweet short film is at its best when the love triangle is put to the side and the dancing takes centre stage.
In between the smooth camerawork that lets the viewer follow the dancers without feeling like they’ve just stepped off a rollercoaster, and the moves themselves (cartwheels and jumps galore), the viewer is left feeling good and breathless (as one should feel at the end of a dance movie).
The second film, Tagnawittude, while also playing with the music and dancing theme, was worlds away in terms of tone. A serious documentary about Gwana music, which combines religious songs and beats from sub-Saharan Africa, Berber, and Sufism traditions, the film follows individuals who use this music genre to express their religious beliefs and find a transcendental experience.
Between interviews and clips of concerts in France, Algeria and Morocco, director Rahma Benhamou El Madani explores the subject while infusing her own personal experiences; she would watch her mother go into this transcendental state when she was younger.
However, it is the interview portion of the film that is lacking. While El Madani talks a lot about magic and passion with her subjects, the lengthly, under-edited interviews never manage to convey much of either quality.
Yet Tagnawittude redeems itself through the footage of the singing and dancing. Watching the performers do acrobatics in a street fest, and the shots of the audience (some of who look to be achieving that other-worldly feeling) is striking, and makes one feel as if the performers could have jumped off the screen and burst into the theatre at any second.
While vastly different in many respects, both films did have one thing in common: they proved that when it comes to films that revolve around singing or dancing, sometimes the best thing to do is let the groove take over and charm the audience — in whatever language it might be.

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