Rama Rau's new documentary League of Exotique Dancers isn't shy about baring all, from its feminist leanings to its message of broadening the way we think of sexuality. It's a particularly great choice for this year's Hot Docs Film Festival opener, in a year where the lack of alternative voices in film has become a central topic of discussion in the cinematic world.
Centering on the performers in the yearly "Legends of Burlesque Hall of Fame" show in Las Vegas, Exotique Dancers is a series of loose, freewheeling interviews with the women who were stars in burlesque's heyday. Tracking the rise of burlesque, from tame-but-naughty teasing to no-holds-barred, full-frontal strip shows, this varied cross-section of women (who represent all shapes, sizes, orientations and races) takes us through their own careers in the industry.
The film's subjects are so fascinating and inspiring that simply pointing a camera at them for hours would still make a great film, so the interviews take centre stage here, with only minimal editing work in the form of interspersed clips of black-and-white burlesque shows from the 1930s, all the way up to its eventual demise in the 1980s. 2014's Advanced Style, another Hot Docs selection, also excelled at depicting the glamour and confidence that comes with old age, and its influence is apparent here, as Exotique Dancers shines a spotlight on a series of funny, tough, creative, brilliant ladies who are admirably crass and classy in the same breath.
Director Rama Rau lets them speak at length with no interruption as they passionately wax poetic on the role burlesque played in their lives, the pride they took in their craft and the various forms of harassment they faced from men who felt entitled to their bodies. Despite sexism and discrimination, these women are unanimously clear on one fact: this was a choice they made, one they are still fiercely proud of.
Exotique Dancers refuses to paint the sexy exploits of its stars as relics of a bygone era: many of these women still engage in some form of sex work — affirming, on-their-terms sex work they enjoy and are good at. Women over 60 can and do have active sex lives that are not meant to be pitied or ignored. Rau's film asks the audience to question what society finds sexual and reconcile it with what the film paints as sexual, suggesting that sexuality is most powerful when it's communicated via gestures, smiles, winks and suggestions.