Note: This film was not released in theaters. It can be purchased for $9.99 or rented for just $4.99 through Vimeo On Demand. More information is on their website: shakethedust.org
One crucial aspect of hip hop that many people seem to overlook is that it is more than just a musical genre to describe groups like Public Enemy or De La Soul. Hip hop is a culture, a framework that the mind can live in and explore, a feeling and sentiment towards the world around you. If there is one revealing characteristic of hip hop that Adam Sjoberg’s film “Shake the Dust” illuminates is the accessibility of hip hop as a culture, the transcendence it is imbued that allows it to cross all sorts of cultures. Many shots of the film just watch with admiration the men and women, boys and girls, who find any little space available to them and dance. Dance is a medium by which an individual can freely express themselves, its freestyle foundations are at the heart of hip hop mentality. The style of dance most preferred? Breaking, or breakdancing. “Shake the Dust” chronicles the transcendence of hip hop in parts unfamiliar to the Western eye.
Sjoberg follows four group of hip hop acolytes trained in the language of breaking. They live is countries that have been ravaged by a multitude of unfortunate events as well as a continuous stream of misconception in the media. We travel from Yemen to Colombia to Uganda and finally to Cambodia. Pleasantly enough, all four not only share the same passion for the craft of breaking, but all four carry with them a distinct approach. At first, Sjoberg throws us into the fray of introducing all the characters from all the countries, almost overwhelming the senses. Nevertheless, once the narrative flow starts to settle, we begin to regain attention and spot the intricacies of each storyline. Uganda features to boys who have become brothers through hip hop and between their dancing sessions in the halls of empty buildings or on top of cars, they exude a powerful dose of friendship and dedication, particularly in one scene that involves one their birthdays. Another example includes a one man who breaks with a crew in Colombia who has a daughter. Sure enough, the daughter takes an interest and asks him to teach her. The results or mystifying, and one could tell the Sjoberg enjoys capturing the moments where a little girl quickly expands the horizons on what she could physically do to express herself.
In some ways this film goes beyond being an elegy for hip hop. Sometimes we are just watching these individuals live. The colors, textures, and ambiances of their environments may seem foreign to us but the idea is to remove the exoticizing layer from these third world countries. The kids who formed the first ever breaking crew in Yemen talk repeatedly about coming out of the preconceived shadow that Yemen is populated with corruption and terrorism. Even within their own country, they are trying to rustle the status quo, forming a cypher (dance circle) in a public plaza so that anyone interested can see what breaking entails. At times I was really fortunate to be able to witness the stories of all these people from all these countries; a humanization through common language.
Many shots are beautiful and the observing qualities of this film refer to Sjoberg’s background as a photographer. In a way, there are times where the film becomes less of a narration into the lives of these individuals and more of a visual essay of the dynamic attraction of dancing and hip hop. “Shake the Dust,” though, finds itself with a lot of traffic. Some of the stories weave in and out well but some crowd others and the viewer may or may not have a hard time discerning what is what at some point. The free spirited nature of the film almost contradicts the focus on these individuals. In addition, with four countries within the scope of the film and multiple individuals in each country, it is very challenging to balance the screen time for each and every individual and what happens is that some appear far less than others. I was a little disappointed in the brevity of Yemen’s exposure, particularly after their episode of dancing in the plaza. They hardly share the spotlight with the others for the rest of the film.
Despite some structural flaws, the film manages to elucidate a spectrum of expression and connectedness. It opens a window to not just one place and one time but to many places in many times. It speaks to the courage of the human soul to find light in places where we, Western civilians living a comfortable life, have a hard time believing such light exists. You can say that through hip hop these people make their own light, find their own strength and goodness to tread the battered ground of an ignored society. With their dance they are quiet no more, rumbling through their streets with both pride and cause. What is not to celebrate about that?