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"Expo:Magic of the White City

The Chicago World's Fair of 1893"

DVD Review by Shira
posted 8-22-06, layout update 3-23-13

This is a documentary narrated by Gene Wilder which explores in depth the Columbia Exposition (World’s Fair) held in Chicago in 1893. It talks about where the idea to hold the fair came from, explores the process of making the preparations, describes what the event was like, and tells of how it drew to a close when the time came for it to end.

Along the way, the documentary offers many details of the profound effect the event had on American society.

The primary tool the documentary uses to tell the story of the Exposition is to show a series of still photographs taken at the time of the fair while voiceover by actor Gene Wilder provides the historical perspective of what the photographs are depicting. Occasionally a few seconds of full-color live-action video interrupt the flow of vintage black-and-white photos – a glass being filled with beer, a duck swimming on the lagoon, etc.

There are many interesting historical facts included, such as how Chicago attained the nickname “the Windy City”, what it cost to build the fairground, how many people attended the fair, what the exhibits contained, how the event fit into the historical/cultural context of the U.S. and the world at that time, and much more. In listening to the narrative and looking at the pictures, I find myself fascinated by the spectacle this Exposition must have presented to 19th century Americans, and I wish I had access to a time machine that would allow me to experience it for myself.

Alas, there is a dark side to what could have been a superb documentary – the way it handles nearly every subject related to women, including the Middle Eastern dance performers.

DVD dancer Claire

The live-action segments that are interspersed between the vintage photos include footage of a modern-day belly dancer, Claire Litton. I am absolutely bewildered and appalled by the decision to portray her in a skimpy bra/belt/skirt costume with an enormous hideous red jewel in her navel. Every other modern-day person appearing in a live-action segment is wearing clothing that would be typical of what Americans wore in the 19th century – so why was the belly dancer wearing a costume more representative of 1993 than of 1893? The first bra to receive a patent was invented in 1913, so bras didn’t even exist yet at the time of the fair. The “jewel in the navel” that so many Americans wrongly associate with belly dancing wasn’t invented until the 1930’s, in response to Hollywood’s Hayes code. So what were these egregious anachronisms doing in what otherwise appears to be a portrayal of 19th-century culture?

My own question is probably answered by the fact that every other person appearing in live-action segments is a man. Claire is the only woman depicted in these segments.

Dancer Claire

The documentary shows very little of Claire actually dancing, just 2-3 seconds here and there. The scene it particularly uses over and over shows her just from the bra through the belt, reducing her to a faceless wave of undulating female flesh with that glaring evil red navel jewel. To her credit, Claire moves fluidly, in time to the music. It’s hard to tell from how brief the clips are, but the brief glimpses of her give the impression she’s probably a talented dancer. Another frequently-used clip shows a close-up of her face.

It wouldn’t have been difficult for the filmmakers to show the belly dancer in period costuming. Every man in the movie wore historical garb, but when it came to the woman obviously the temptation to show a half-naked beautiful female body was stronger than the commitment to historical accuracy. There are several vintage photos of Middle Eastern women wearing period garb included, so obviously the creators had access to correct information. Even the laziest researcher could have found Donna Carlton’s excellent book titled Looking for Little Egypt through a quick web search, and leafed through it to find out what dancers at the time of the fair actually wore.

Vintage dancers

Better yet, if the filmmaker had cared about historical accuracy, he could have included the 1-minute film of Fatima (a Ghawazee dancer) that Thomas Edison filmed in 1897. This clip would have more accurately portrayed both the costuming and the dance style in use at the time of the fair.

I honestly don’t know who was at fault for this flagrant disregard for Middle Eastern dance and its history. I don’t know whether it was Claire herself, or Barbie Pastorik (the costume designer for the overall film), or Mark Bussler (the producer). Whoever it was should be ashamed of him/herself.

Regardless of who made the decision to portray Middle Eastern dance in this way, the result is that the integrity of the entire documentary is completely called into question.

If they felt it unnecessary to be factually accurate when showing the dancer, what other liberties did they take with history? What else did they distort simply for the sensationalism of doing so? The fact that they grossly disregarded historical fact on this topic makes me mistrust every other “fact” offered throughout the rest of the documentary.

Only 2 minutes of the 115-minute documentary are devoted to the dancers of the Midway Plaisance. There is no mention of Sol Bloom and his role in promoting the attractions. The exploitation of women’s flesh doesn’t end with the dance segment, however. The film goes on to talk about the exhibit featuring the people of Dohomey (a West African country now known as Benin). First it focuses on the rumor they are cannibals, then it shows several pictures of their bare-breasted women. From here the film moves on to the Palace of Fine Arts exhibits, and the camera lingers lovingly over many works of art (mostly Orientalists) portraying naked women.

Yes, it becomes clear just what the misogynistic filmmaker’s agenda is.

Sophia Hayden

He glorifies the achievements of men by providing detailed information about the construction, the technology exhibits, and the grandeur of the event. He denigrates women by portraying them in two extremes – the prudish Lady Managers who tried to enforce high morality standards on the fair (and failed), versus the “women as sex objects” with undulating bare bellies and exposed breasts. He mentions only in passing the contributions of Sophia Hayden, a female architect.

The documentary ends with a description of how the fair came to a close, complete with scandalous stories of people dying in a fire and someone being murdered.

The production quality is beautiful. The film is richly illustrated with vintage photographs, and the narrative contains many interesting anecdotes about the fair itself and the people who formed it. The soundtrack relies primarily on vintage music of the era such as ragtime. If only this film had treated women in general, and the Middle Eastern dancers in particular, with the same level of respect, commitment to factual details, and feeling of awe that it showed toward the men it discussed. At the end of the first hour, I thought this documentary was excellent – and then all my enthusiasm was shattered as it began its second hour with a plunge into its “sex sells” portrayal of everything.

In conclusion, I don’t recommend this documentary to anyone who cares about the role the Columbian Exposition played in the history of Middle Eastern dance in America. Only 2 minutes of nearly 2 hours are devoted to the topic of the dancers, and those two minutes provide horribly wrong impressions of what the dancing and clothing may have been like. This shameful disregard for historical fact damages Middle Eastern dance by spreading erroneous stereotypes.


Resources:

Starting in September 2006, a number of public television stations plan to air this film in two 1-hour segments. See http://www.columbianexpo.com/ and look under the header "On TV" on the right-hand end of the menu bar.

 

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