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Underbelly
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by Jay Seaver

"Bellydancing in general, Princess Farhana specifically."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: It's fitting that woman that "Underbelly" spends the most time following has the name "Pleasant". If this movie makes the audience feel bad about anything - even having misconceptions about its subject - it is likely entirely by accident. As an overview of belly dancing and and introduction to one of its better-known American practitioners, it is, well, pleasant.

Pleasant Gehman, that is. In the 1970s and 1980s, she was a fixture on the L.A. music scene as a party girl, fan, and writer, and then in the early 1990s she learned belly dancing and it took over her life. Now, she dances under the name "Princess Farhana", books other dancers for gigs in the Los Angeles area, and teaches dance to others. The film spends a year with her as she travels the world, dancing and teaching at various events and talking about the controversy she stirred up within that community when she merged burlesque with belly dancing.

We learn some basic facts about belly dancing over the course of the movie; that it's arguably the oldest continuously practiced art form in the world, originally spread by the Romany as they traveled around the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain where it was a huge influence on flamenco. There are several styles, notably Egyptian and Tribal, with Tribal being more open to outside influences, leading to "Tribal Fusion" which incorporates a variety of western dance styles. Director Steve Balderson doesn't go into a lot of detail here; just enough to make sure the audience knows enough to understand what the interview subjects are talking about (and doesn't necessarily think of the dance primarily in terms of titillation).

Mostly, we're talking to Gehman and her friends, and you probably couldn't ask for a more enjoyable documentary subject. She's got a ton of funny stories at her disposal, and always seems well-aware that today's irritation is the price for having a new story to tell tomorrow. She laughs a lot and draws laughter from the people around her, but is also willing to confess her anxieties and describe the dissatisfaction she was feeling with her body when she discovered belly dancing. We also get to see and hear what makes her such a good teacher, from her positive attitude to her knack for breaking complex processes down to bits that can be mastered individually.

As delilghtful as Pleasant is, Balderson sometimes seems a little too enamored of her. At times we're not sure whether he's making a movie about belly dancing or about Gehman; the film will get into interesting topics about the art form that don't have much to do with her until, inevitably, it leads to people saying how great Pleasant is. The last twenty minutes or so are spent on burlesque, which feels like a detour away from what the audience came to see. The style is also distracting, with everything in black and white except for performance bits, which seem to be recorded on consumer equipment.

It's a nice little movie. If you're looking for a movie about belly dancing, this might come off as somewhat slight, but Pleasant Gehman is a nifty subject herself.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17304&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/28/08 10:56:36
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2008 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
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  DVD: 25-Mar-2008

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Directed by
  Steve Balderson

Written by
  (documentary)

Cast
  Margaret Cho
  Elaine Hendrix
  Jane Wiedlin
  Pleasant Gehman
  Rachel Brice



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