Burlesque, the venerably risqué vaudeville tradition of performance, titillation and bawdy humor, has experienced a well-established resurgence, in Portland and elsewhere. (As evidence, Portland’s own Voulez-Vouz Burlesque is performing a cabaret called “When You Wish Upon a Bra” on Thursday at Portland House of Music and Events.)
For Bates psychology professor and first-time feature filmmaker Michael Sargent, this “neo-burlesque” movement, and the unlikely women (and men) who have embraced it represented a suitably enticing subject for “Witchcraft Blue,” his new documentary about the local people finding their individual rewards in revealing themselves.
“I thought it would be a great first project,” said Sargent. “Burlesque naturally draws an audience, and I thought the subject matter itself might be forgiving for a first-time filmmaker. Plus, I was lucky enough to have friends throughout the burlesque community in Maine and, as people involved in burlesque tend not to be shrinking violets, I thought it would not be that difficult to get them to talk to me.”
Sargent, indeed, forms the 95-minute running time of “Witchcraft Blue” around a multitude of interviews with women and men who, to Sargent’s unobtrusive camera, explain their varied reasons for getting involved in the world of burlesque. “I was really lucky,” said Sargent, who teaches a class at Bates titled, “Psychological Perspectives on Sex, Reputation and Power.” “They really welcomed me with open arms when I was perhaps an intrusive presence. To varying degrees, as the filming went on, they forgot I was there, and I became a fly on the wall.”
And in “Witchcraft Blue,” Sargent’s style pays off, not only allowing viewers a startlingly intimate look at the adults-only activity both onstage and off, but, in the interviews, an even more insightful exploration of the complex emotional and personal forces at work. Empowerment, body-positivity and liberation are dominant themes, but issues of self-image, objectification and entitlement all come into play as well, as these “normal”-seeming people all lay out their thoughts on why they were drawn to publicly revealing burlesque performance. As one performer (who goes by her stage name, Mistress Fanny Pearl) puts it at one point: “The inner dialogue is not all peace and love and self-congratulation and empowerment.”
A running theme of the film is how the performers make a distinction between what they do and stripping or, as Sargent differentiates it, “commercial stripping.” He notes that, in studying the different elements of each, the burlesque movement has been a vehicle for many women to express a body-positive image that would have no place in more conventional commercial stripping. “One woman in the film explains that what drew her was the fact that she had gained some weight,” said Sargent, “and that, in burlesque, she found a body-positive community that valued women of various body types.”
Sargent, who honed his filmmaking skills with short videos in support of the Lewiston-based Maine storytelling event The Corner (cometothecorner.com), points out that the completed “Witchcraft Blue” has been warmly received by his subjects at the few private screenings he’s held for them.
“Every interview, I thought about the fact that, being a man, I was probably making different choices than I would if I were a woman,” Sargent said. “I don’t presume that I have completely avoided any sort of sexism or misogyny in how I approached the film, but I tried my damnedest to carve out ample space for these performers, most of whom are women, to speak in their own words about how and why they do it. I tried to create a set of spaces where women are the dominant actors. After one screening, one of the performers told me mine was the first burlesque doc she’d seen that really got it – that wasn’t, as she put it, ‘just another glitter and feathers’ documentary. That meant a lot to me.”
Watching “Witchcraft Blue” is, indeed, a complex experience, the earnestness and openness of the interview subjects talking about the complicated risks and rewards of their choice to participate intercut judiciously with footage of their imaginatively ribald, sometimes startling onstage personae. As Sargent put it, “If you’re looking for glitz and glamour, this isn’t that. My goal was to understand who these people are and what they get out of it. Their struggles to express themselves with authenticity in a society that often pressures people to conform, to follow certain rules. How to manage those struggles, to express themselves in a society that doesn’t want to listen, especially to women.”
“Witchcraft Blue” has been submitted to multiple film festivals, in Maine and around the world, a process Sargent jokes is like “a high school senior waiting to hear about college acceptance.” Regardless, he promises that there are plans in the works for screenings in Maine, including, he hopes, some here in Portland in the coming months. He suggests keeping tabs on the film’s Facebook page for details on how Maine filmgoers can see this insightful, entertaining and risqué film of Mainers who find complex fulfillment in dropping their inhibitions in public.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Starting Friday: “Princess Cyd.” Warm, human, coming-of-age indie about a young woman from South Carolina whose visit to her free-spirited author aunt in Chicago sees finds exploring her own sexuality and beliefs.
Starting Friday: “Call Me By Your Name.” Hey, it’s another warmly human coming-of-age indie, this time from director Luca Guadagnino, about an American teen (Timothée Chalamet) whose idyllic Italian summer with his scholar parents is disrupted by the arrival of his father’s handsome research assistant (Armie Hammer). This one’s getting Oscar buzz for pretty much everyone involved, especially “A Serious Man’s” Michael Stuhlbarg as the boy’s gentle father.