b-boys b-girls

Shake the Dust Review: Art Boosting Morale in the World's Poorest Locations

Friday, April 24, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Shake the Dust

Still courtesy of BOND Strategy and Influence.

Director: Adam Sjöberg
Rating: Four Stars out of Five
Will be available in coming months.

Artistic expression has a long tradition of being a safe haven for those in poverty, a way out of the route of drugs, gangs, terrorism, and other terrible things for impressionable young people. Most of the longstanding paths to expressing one's self through art are expensive habits. Paint sets are pricey. Guitars, too. Have you ever priced out lighting equipment for even the most low budget filmmaking project? It's disheartening.

For the world's poor, that barrier to entry is even harder to overcome. They have to be creative about which creative avenues they choose. That's why, for the last couple decades, breakdancing has found its way to slums and ghettos across the globe. In director Adam Sjöberg's new documentary, Shake the Dust, we get a glimpse into the lives of the b-boys and b-girls in Yemen, Colombia, Cambodia, and Uganda. Their lives, their struggles, their low-wage service jobs (if they have any at all) fade away when they pick up a piece of cardboard and, usually, a cassette-playing boombox loaded with hip hop tracks from all over the chronological and geographical maps.

The subjects of the documentary may be from all over the planet, but their stories share a through line of avoiding the most negative temptations for the world's poor. Many struggled to leave the drug trade, others resist extremist terrorist overtures, some battle forced homelessness because a corporation bought land and bulldozed their homes with no warning. They could be dejected and spiteful, but their communal art, and the relationships forged within, keep their “hearts full,” as one dancer mentions. They have been given something to care about, a passion, and it's palpable.

They aren't interested in keeping it to themselves, either. Whether through creating nonprofit organizations, visiting local schools with dance workshops, or simply inviting children on the street to join in, every group in the movie takes an active role in diminishing the harshness of life in their cash-strapped communities. This may be a bit of cherry picking on Sjöberg's part, only focusing on the charitable b-boy groups, but there are enough of them to where I'm optimistic this is a regular occurrence around the world in this art form. They teach children to read, some life skills to earn them enough money for school, give them a makeshift family if they have lost theirs. It's heartening.

Even more heartening for this visually minded writer is that Shake the Dust is shot in such an artful way so as to make the best use of modern low budget HD camera technology. In recent years, we've gotten digital releases from some of the finest visual stylists known to the filmmaking world, like Spike Lee's Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Brian De Palma's Passion. Both of those feel off in a way Shake the Dust does not. The secret lies in the utilization of lighting. Lee's and De Palma's pictures are filled with harsh lighting and colors that may work when shot on celluloid but look garish in digital photography. Their work in the medium has an experimental, feeling out vibe, a fundamental discomfort with the technology, an indication they have not quite gotten the hang of it yet. Sjöberg, who has worked for years in digital photography and filmmaking, has none of those hangups. He intuitively understands what works best, and hardly bothers with artificial light at all, except in the darkest moments of night when he employs a simple spotlight on his dancers. Otherwise, he uses the sun and overhead lights in practice spaces to create silhouettes and dancing shadows.

But, as great as Sjöberg's technical craftsmanship proves to be, the dancers are the main event. They provide the visual oomph to the proceedings. Intriguingly, each corner of the globe injects local flavor into their breakdancing styles. In Yemen, there's a staccato aspect, a pleasing stiffness and jerkiness to how they move. The Cambodians feature more spinning, a constant urge to gain momentum. The Colombians swing around, dip and jump with a fluidness unlike their peers. It's a beautiful thing to behold.

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