For director Rama Rau, the greatest lesson learned from the more than two years spent developing her latest film, League of Exotique Dancers, was one first demonstrated by the advertising industry in the post-war era: sex sells.
The Toronto-based director’s film, which will tonight (April 28) open the 23rd edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival with its world premiere, spotlights the pioneers of burlesque during its heyday from the 1940s to 1960s, while exposing the industry’s dark underbelly of racism, sexism and abuse.
Produced by Canadian shop Storyline Entertainment and made by an all-female film crew, Exotique profiles some of the most colorful dancers of the period, who were indirectly at the forefront of the women’s liberation movement, as they prepare to give a present-day live performance at the Legends of Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.
“People talk about their sisters in the picket lines, but these are the women who were fighting [for feminism] on stage and in bars, and I think that’s important because they fought for all of us,” Rau (pictured, left) tells realscreen. “The fact that you have sexual freedom today as a woman, it’s because of women like this.”
Despite Exotique‘s risqué subject matter, Rau and producer Ed Barreveld had little difficulty pitching the doc for funding.
The concept of a burlesque-focused project was initially brought to the doorstep of CBC’s Documentary Channel as an “alternative history on feminism in North America.” The channel – which will air the doc later this year – boarded the project almost immediately, funding the duo for further research. Producers would then travel to Europe to secure pre-sales with Scandinavian broadcasters, including DR Denmark, SVT Sweden and NRK Norway.
“We never really had an issue, and in fact when we were pitching it in Europe to SVT, we showed them the trailer on the laptop and when it ended, they shut the laptop and asked ‘How much?’” Rau recalls with a laugh. “That was a dream pitch.”
Toronto-based distributor Kinosmith will be distributing the film throughout Canada. London’s TVF International will handle the international sales of the film and will pursue U.S. and UK deals while at the 11-day Toronto festival.
Though Rau and crew ran into some roadblocks during their initial drive for funding, unearthing archival footage proved to be the bigger challenge thanks in large part to a strict prohibition on cameras in the majority of early burlesque houses.
After months of digging, however, Exotique researcher Erin Chisholm managed to uncover archival material of popular dancers such as Gina Bon Bon, Kitten Natividad and Lovey Goldmine.
Another problem would arise, however, with the discovery that a handful of the film’s characters performed at small dives far removed from the reach of Hollywood’s glitz and glamour, or the gaze of a camera lens.
The solution in the end was to take a liberal approach to the content by using readily available vintage footage from myriad library archives as a “flavor” of the era in order to bridge the gap with the film’s vérité content.
“At no point do you think those are the women. It’s just a flavor,” Rau explains. “For me the really great part is that a 72-year-old can go up [at the Burlesque Hall of Fame] and strip. I needed that, but I also needed a glimpse of the past to show who [these performers] were.”
Rau previously held two rough-cut screenings ahead of tonight’s world premiere as an attempt to gauge audience reactions and fine-tune the film. The first showing was held last year in Toronto in front of a select group of viewers, and then it was brought to Las Vegas last June where it was screened to a room of burlesque performers.
“It was amazing to screen this to them,” the director says. “It was a theater full of burlesque women, and they were hooting and screaming – they loved it.”
- League of Exotique Dancers premieres at Hot Docs tonight (April 28) at 9:45 p.m. EST at Toronto’s Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, and again on Friday (April 29). Visit the festival’s website for complete screening info.
- Check out an exclusive clip of the film below: