When Arabs Danced review: Jawad Rhalib’s When Arabs Danced is an intuitive, uncensored view from creative, contemporary souls inside the Muslim faith who are struggling to understand where the joy and freedom have gone from their religion, within certain boundaries of course. Filmed from Belgium to Iran, Morocco to Egypt, we hear from dancers, actors and theatre lovers who hold strong desires to keep hold of the history for the passion of dance and artistic independence within their beliefs, yet many feel it is being drowned out by extremists within their own faith who are denying their past with stories of fear and out-dated belief structures.

When Arabs Danced review
Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

When Arabs Danced review [TIFF]

Rhalib’s documentary begins as a look into the memories of his Mother’s belly dancing he had a child, and the shame he felt at one point, but soon moves towards a cultural study of the world he inhabits. This is a deeply interesting look into a world that often gets misrepresented in the mainstream media. For this film, we meet real, everyday people – of all ages – who are fighting against oppression and denial of the freedom to dance, or explore the study of the art, all in places where they grew up and have seen drastic changes. There are thought-provoking observations throughout as we learn that even within the faith, people cannot do what they want to and are often cast out by family and friends if they do.

When Arabs Danced endeavours to take us away from the usual stereotypes and also isn’t scared of exploring the reality that old-style misunderstanding isn’t helping future generations, nor is it progressing hope or opportunity for the youth who want to explore the creative side of their existence. His film celebrates the sheer joy of dance and music for every type of person, both in sexuality and individual belief. I think it’s very easy to take the creative arts for granted in a world that, to someone like me, is so accessible and reflective. But when you see it as something that’s denied by others, you’ve got to question why and that’s what Rhalib’s documentary certainly does.

While this audience learns from seeing another side of a religion I definitely don’t know everything about, I did find that same type of arguments and points repeat themselves and so you lose a little connection somewhere in the middle but, that being said, it doesn’t make the documentary any less significant and it’s certainly necessary. I think When Arabs Danced could be hugely cathartic and inspirational for some audiences. In truth, there is the seed of hope planted in moments of desperation in his documentary, and this comes to life via the heart of every story we hear.

Exquisitely filmed and shot by cinematographer François Schmitt, it’s also a poignant, truthful, and timely documentary as this isn’t we something we see every day. When Arabs Danced should encourage compelling discussions and, quite vitally, there’s an important belief at work just settling on the surface here and that’s hope; authentic, spirited hope for future generations.

When Arabs Danced review by Dan Bullock, September 2018.

When Arabs Danced was reviewed at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Click here for all of our coverage.