Breakdance Project Uganda (B.P.U.) is a program led by dancer Abramz, aiming to create a better, more positive life for what is known to be the “worst place on earth to be a child.” Director Nabil Elderkin met Abramz and was completely enamored by his dedication to the future of Uganda’s youth, equally impressed with the size of his relatively new, nearly entirely self-created b-boy program. The filmmaker decided to return to East African country with a documentary crew, rounding up plenty of star power (Mos Def and Will.I.Am are interviewed, Common lays the narrating track) and also famous breakdancer Crazy Legs (founder of Rock Steady Crew whom the New York Times cited as “foremost breakdancing group in the world today”) to teach a few work shop classes and tour the program. Elderkin matches the Ugandan teacher’s optimism through his digital lens, going through the area’s history and its current poverty while always returning to dedicated children or current b-boys discussing how hip-hop has changed their lives for the better.
Separating the movie from its good intention and observing it as a cohesive work, there’s a general uneven-ness that can make some chunks of the documentary, “Bouncing Cats,” a bit difficult to sit through. The entire running time is a mishmash of the following: Crazy Leg’s meet-and-greet tour, Ugandan history narrated over maps of the land, and personal tales from the residents and famous hip-hop musicians. This formula is a bit deadening, impersonal, and tedious at times (at its worst it feels like a long trailer), the two biggest offenders being the history lesson and the star-powered interviewees. As far as the former goes, these too-informational bits seem kind of droning and misdirected. It’s much too expositional, and though it helps to explain why things are the way they are, it seems unnecessary to include it in the movie. The latter’s weaknesses are much more simple: the musicians don’t bring any sort of interesting anecdote or perspective to the project whatsoever, even the consistently likable Mos Def can’t conjure up anything other than a shrug-worthy reception.
Really, the cake is in the sessions with the residents, with each telling their own short story one by one. Unlike the usual boring nature of people sitting around and talking, these accounts are told with vigor and emotion which press harder than any reenactment or visual accompaniment could’ve done. It’s not sugarcoated or pushed for emotional impact, nor for personal gain — it’s real. Before there’s any comfort in the newfound relationship between them and the viewer, the filmmaker moves onto something else hurriedly.
One of the most memorable moments involves the cinema-verite style Crazy Legs story, which builds from a questionable statement in the beginning of the flm. In a table meeting speaking of his hard times as a youth, he describes the South Bronx as a third-world country. As the oddly self-assured ignorance spews from his mouth, Elderkin and the others listen respectively, almost as if they didn’t hear what he just said. Is it not offensive? The filmmaker holds back, seemingly accepting it as a naive trait and refusing to belittle his subject. Towards the end, Mr. Legs asks one of the members of the dance camp if they feel like the crew is exploiting them or taking advantage of them, to which they promptly assure him of their trust in the group. He admits that his hardships were absolutely minimal compared to what these children currently go through, sincerely apologetic in tone. It’s these kind of moments that are sorely lacking in modern cinema, ones that show undiluted human fallacy/naivety in all their non-glory. We don’t feel bad for him when he breaks down into tears, but it feels pretty damn genuine. Better late than never, no?
With all its occasional smarts, there are some baffling missteps – such as the small amount of time dedicated to lensing some actual dancing. There’s plenty of talk about it, plenty of talk of its influence and good nature, and maybe that is more important than what it physically is in the long run. Still, the sheer beauty of it should be celebrated at least a bit more than it is, especially in a visual medium. At one point someone speaks of an amazing dance the students did for them when they arrived, something so special that he feels rather undeserving for it. But what did we do to not deserve to see it? Say what you will about movies like “Step Up,” but at least they appreciate dancing enough to showcase it, albeit surrounded by shit.
Chalk it up to inexperience: while the director is no stranger to set work (he’s responsible for many Kanye West ventures), this is his first feature. The discipline isn’t there yet, stuffing 75 minutes with varying moments that are either too short or don’t work, just to have it all. Die hard fans of Crazy Legs or b-boys in general will dig it no matter what, but the rest of us are only left with a short stack of genuine moments. [C]
“Bouncing Cats” will play in Queens, NY at St. John’s University, February 15th at 8:30 pm. The event is free and will feature a Q&A.