Director Michael Sanchez gives credit for his Best Documentary Script Award to the lives the members of Slow Burn Burlesque lead.
Michael Sanchez visited New Orleans and all he got was an award-winning documentary. He was in town working on Green Lantern when, on a whim one night, he saw a line and got in it. It was for a performance by the Slow Burn Burlesque Troupe, and that show led to the documentary Save Our Souls, which recently won the prize for Best Documentary Script at the Madrid Film Festival.
According to the Los Angeles-based Sanchez, he had no prior experience with burlesque, but the show inspired him. "It reminded me of rock 'n' roll bands that I used to go see in the early 1990s like Rage Against the Machine," he says. "It had a rawness. It had a struggling artist vibe to it. There wasn't a super-high production value, but somebody knew what they were doing."
Sanchez approached Slow Burn's emcee and co-producer Ben Wisdom about the idea of a documentary. "He told me, 'Look, there are guys who show up with cameras who ask, "What color are your panties?"'" Sanchez says. "That was the furthest thing from my mind, but it made me realize the sensitivity I was up against." He first shot a trailer to show the troupe that he was on the level, then an entire show and soon some preliminary footage. He used that to line up investors and make the movie.
Save Our Souls shows that there is more to burlesque dancers than the time they spend on the stage, but getting their stories on film took time. We made nine more trips back over the next two years," Sanchez says. "As we kept going, the material kept getting better and better." As Wisdom warned, Sanchez had to prove he wasn't a creep before the women would open up to him. "I wouldn't say things were stiff, but there was kind of a question mark - 'What is this guy doing here?'"
Sanchez found the juxtaposition of the dancers in New Orleans to be an irresistible story. "The idea of these delicate, beautiful dancers in this wild setting was really the impetus to get this going," Sanchez says. He remembers capturing the dichotomy of their personal lives and stage lives one day when he filmed Nona Narcisse walking down the street and talking about burlesque. At the time, she was housesitting, but he wasn't able to use the footage from where she was staying because it was misleading. "The house was way too nice," he says. The reality got a little too real when, during the period that Sanchez was shooting, Narcisse was attacked by three young teenagers. She escaped without being raped, but the sequence of her recounting the events gives the film additional gravity.
"This is a people story disguising itself as a burlesque film," Sanchez says, and he thinks that's what led to his award. Save Our Souls was up for three awards, and he was slightly unclear on what was said by the Best Documentary Script Award since the film, like many documentaries, had no script. "I think the award was for that take on burlesque performers and the burlesque community, that these burlesque performers actually make contributions to society on and off the stage," he says. "People have this preconception of what a burlesque dancer is, and doing the expose is what the award was for."
At this point, Save Our Souls is next scheduled to be shown in a film festival in Cyprus, Greece in October, though Sanchez says film festival invitations can come out of the blue. Since film festivals have become such a major part of how American films are marketed that The Avengers debuted at New York's Tribeca Film Festival, he's not surprised that it has been easier to find opportunities to screen the film in Europe than in America. "In Europe, you've got the fabled city in New Orleans and burlesque," he says. Part of the challenge is familiarity, he acknowledges. "If it were burlesque dancers in Kurdistan, we'd be in every American festival."
The Slow Burn Burlesque Troupe next performs Saturday at the Howlin' Wolf. Tickets are on sale now.