Friday, February 18, 2011

Bouncing Cats: Film documents breakdancing as salvation in troubled Uganda

Bouncing Cats is a documentary film dedicated to the proposition that dance is a form of therapy.  The film has been screening in American cities this year, and has been very well received.  No surprise.  This is a powerful contemporary statement on the positive power of hip hop culture in Africa.  (Click here for trailer and screening info.)

Bouncing Cats focuses on a self-made activist, Abraham “Abramz” Tekya, a Ugandan b-boy and A.I.D.S. orphan who created an organization called Breakdance Project Uganda (B.P.U.).  Abramz grew up loving hip hop, especially break dancing.  He uses it to empower and uplift urban youth in Kampala, to give them a sense of hope and meaning in their lives.  The program is understandably popular and effective in Uganda's urban ghettos.  Seeing young Africans spinning and freezing makes that case in just a few frames.  The film's title comes from a rhythmic chant used to create a lo-fi beat  track for dancers who lack sound systems: "Bouncing cats, baboons and cats," over and over, with "baboon" sounding like a double bass drum hit. 

In Bouncing Cats, Abramz invites one of his American heroes, Crazy Legs, a founding member of the Rock Steady Crew, to visit Uganda and teach b-boy classes.  The American dancer relates to the idea immediately.  After all, break dancing originated as an alternative to urban gang violence in American cities.  Abramz's African vision seems a natural extension of that idea in a country emerging from a long history of brutality and poverty. 

One of the commentators in the film, Somali hip hop artist K'Naan, raps in the soundtrack, "I'll take rappers on a field trip any day."  The line comes from "This is Africa," a trademark K'Naan taunt to North American rappers that essentially says:  If you think the urban North American experience was rough, check out urban Africa.   Crazy Legs is indeed humbled and awed by what he finds in Uganda, the extremities of deprivation, need, the harsh demands of childhood, and in the north, violence and cruelty.  He is also humbled by the power of indigenous Ugandan dance, and amused to share the insight that in traditional African dance and break dancing, the essential activity is the same:  courtship, or as Crazy Legs puts it, "to impress girls." 

Y Not and Crazy Legs teaching in Uganda
This film does not shy away from harsh realities.  It shows the power of artistic outreach, but also its limitations.  K'Naan notes that teaching disadvantaged or abused kids to break dance is "not a practical solution, but it is what leads to practical solutions."  The kids are indeed empowered and uplifted by dance, as Abramz claims.  But their problems remain.  We feel not so much that they have been rescued, but that at least they've been given a glimpse of what rescue might look like, and shown that they can and must be the rescuers.

In Bouncing Cats, the action starts in Kampala, but cuts deepest when it moves to Uganda's troubled north.  Over a 20-year span, an estimated 30,000 children have been abducted into Joseph Koni's medievally cruel and nihilistic Lord's Resistance Army, which wreaked mayhem in the Ugandan north until it was forced across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the mayhem now continues. The story within a story in this film is the journey of Abramz and his American visitors make to a part of Uganda most southerners still don't dare to venture.  Torture, mutilation, killing as a ritual of childhood initiation, child rape and marriage.... the list of LRA atrocities is mind-numbing.   These things are hard to hear about, and hard to watch.  And disturbing images linger in the mind, even beyond the film's essentially positive message.  But the sense of uplift this film achieves is genuine, not a fantasy at all.  It is absolutely inspiring to see the tormented body of LRA victim, John Ochola, grown but hobbled, struggling to move his body in a way that is free and beautiful.  The soundtrack to this scene is K'Naan's "Waving Flag," one of the signature songs of the 2010 World Cup.  It hits the spot.

Abramz teaches John Ochola

Bouncing Cats is an important, timely film.  It's a story about young Africans and Americans relating to one another in a way that is real and genuinely meaningful.  It's a story about Africans helping Africans and finding hope in the face of daunting circumstances.  It's a story about social evolution.  Abramz talks about learning computer skills through the sweat of the b-boys, and after watching Bouncing Cats, you believe such things are possible.  Anyone who thinks hip hop is about gangsterism, bling, and misogyny, needs to see this film.  The upside of hip hop culture has never been demonstrated more persuasively.

On the musical side, Bouncing Cats makes effective use of K'Naan's songs, and incidental music by Amadou & Mariam with Manu Chao, The Very Best and others.  The music becomes more African as the film goes on, which is appropriate.  Visit the Bouncing Cats site for more info, and additional screening announcements at

Banning Eyre
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