Jackie English’s Becoming Burlesque is the third film I’ve seen this year about the art form of Burlesque and about the artists themselves. Surprisingly, it’s one of the more original stories I’ve seen this year.
Fatima (Shiva Negar) is a Toronto Muslim woman living as best a modern life she can while showing honor to her father Waleed’s (Hrant Alianak) Muslim faith. One expression of that faith shows Fatima now wearing a hijab in public, albeit the more colorful ones. Later in the film, she’d explain her personal reason for wearing it.
Fatima is caught in the middle of clashing cultures. Her Uncle Yousef (Sam Kalilieh) is a local imam, and he is overbearing (sometimes physically) in an attempt to get his brother’s family to adhere to the laws of Islam. Waleed, on the other hand, feels Islam and its traditions can change with cultural and world events. As shown by Fatima’s mother Olivia (Severn Thompson) who is a Christian and her brother Mahmood (Khalid Klein), who is more interested in having fun and hanging out. One thing is clear though, this is a family that loves one another.
“…Fatima finds her voice and discovers how Burlesque is a way to express it.”
One day on the bus, a knock-out red-head sits near Fatima. Her name is Texas Red Tempest (Courtney Deelen), and Fatima helps her dispense with some creepy guy trying to get a date. Texas Red performs at a local Burlesque club and encourages her to see the show later that night. After an uncomfortable dinner with Uncle Yousef, Fatima goes to the club and is immediately drawn into the world of Burlesque.
Fatima now begins to live a double life. At home, she struggles to understand her identity as a loyal family member while holding the traditions of her faith. At the club, Fatima finds her voice and discovers how Burlesque is a way to express it. She discovers a way to express herself and unleash her new Burlesque identity, “Babylon.” As all good films do, Fatima’s two worlds collide, when her brother catches her working at the club, and of course, her parents show up one night to see her “dance” and oh boy!
While Becoming Burlesque has a few shortcomings, mostly in the acting department with better delivery of lines and emotion and in its story that feels a little cliché. Writer/director English more than makes up for its weaknesses in the way she juggles these disparate worlds of Islam and Burlesque. That’s a pair you’d probably never see together.
English honors Islam by allowing characters like Uncle Yousef to explain why its traditions are essential. She then lets Fatima find a way to live and honor both worlds.
“…Shiva Negar’s performance as Fatima. She’s engaging and charismatic…”
She also honors the traditions associated with Burlesque. Like the other films I’ve seen this year, a Burlesque troupe is about friendship, family, and community. It’s about supporting one another and unleashing that tease.
I will say Becoming Burlesque does have a better-produced dance and tease sequences so far in film. There’s still a lot of room for improvement in how its captured by the cameras, but what you see ultimately feels authentic to the artform.
As unique as the story is, Becoming Burlesque succeeds in large part to Shiva Negar’s performance as Fatima. She’s engaging and charismatic, and she guides Fatima character arc flawlessly. Your eyes are on her, and you’re with her all the way from caterpillar to butterfly.