Upbeat audience for Hear Me Move
It took five years for film producer Wandile Molebatsi and his team at black-owned Coal Stove Pictures to put together South Africa’s first dance film, Hear Me Move.
Dance styles such as disco, ballet and krumping have had their moment in the spotlight through various international movies. But this is the first time local dance styles have been packaged into a film. So why did it take so long to produce a local dance movie?
“A lot of the investors want to make Afrikaans romantic comedies and when they find out that you are making an urban dance film, their response is not so great,” Molebatsi tells the Mail & Guardian.
“There isn’t a big culture yet of supporting and making black cinema, but it’s developing and I think that is why it took so long to make this film. It’s now the right time to celebrate our youth. Our relevance is now global.”
To show the rest of the world what some of the local young people are like post democracy, Hear Me Move zooms in on one very popular township dance style, sbujwa. The movie’s choreographer, Paul Modjadji, describes sbujwa as a more “free” dance style compared with the pantsula style. “It makes sense that it was born out of our new freedom because there is a lot of freedom with sbujwa,” Modjadji says. “It’s a mixture of a lot of things.
“There is still a lot of footwork but there is more fluidity that goes with sbujwa. If your shoulders and hips are stiff, you are going to have a problem,” Modjadji says.
Hear Me Move was screened at film festivals in Toronto and Cannes last year, to receptions that Molebatsi describes as “interesting”.
“People underestimate the quality of stories that can come out of Africa. There is a level of surprise when people see the film and how beautifully it has been shot. I think people walk into the cinema expecting to see another emotional dramatic movie about poverty, but we showed them beautiful black people dancing in urban spaces. It’s a new image of blackness.”
The battle to be Number One
The film tells the story of two brothers, Muzi (Nyaniso Dzedze) and Prince (Mbuso Kgarebe), who both grew up without a father. Muzi’s father was a revered panstula dancer in the township and was murdered when Muzi was still a child.
Muzi was raised by his grandmother (Lillian Dube) and mother Lerato (S’thandiwe Kgoroge), who doesn’t want her son to dance. On the other hand, Prince grew up on the streets without a family and was taken in by Muzi’s father’s best friend, Shoes (Makhaola-Mosuoe Ndebele). Muzi and Prince lead the Sbujwa Nation dance crew.
Prince, who is a skothane (a participant in dance “battles” in which a disregard for material possessions is articulated in movement and gesture), is an over-the-top antagonist who hides behind material things to deal with his hardships. He starts off as the golden boy of Sbujwa Nation, but gets kicked out of the crew due to his lack of discipline. Muzi, who is the “nice guy” then steps into Prince’s shoes to lead the dance crew.
In the film we see these two young men battle it out on and off stage for respect and for the title of the best dancer.
One of the oldest local dance styles, panstula, which is well-known internationally, is not left out in Hear Me Move. Through the character of Muzi’s late father, the film pays homage to pantsula, a dance style that once reflected the township youth street dance culture.
Paying homage to pantsula
According to Modjadji, the death of Muzi’s father represents the death of pure pantsula but it still lives on through new dance styles such as sbujwa.
“Pantsula is like the forefather of our street dance culture in South Africa. It’s very technical and intricate compared to sbujwa and is about precision,” says Modjadji. The word “sbujwa” is derived from the word “bourgeois”, which in modern society is often associated with being snobbish.
“Sbujwa is all about dancing with a sense of showing off. It’s not attitude per se, attitude is more hip-hop, but showing off would be the one thing that characterises sbujwa as a dance style,” Modjadji adds.
When dance movies inspired by urban culture are released, often the reaction is, “oh no, not another dance movie” because the plots are often predictable. The dancing, however, is usually impressive.
“We were worried about that [reaction]. That was one of the biggest things that we had to fight against for the four years that we tried to raise the money,” says Molebatsi. “Everyone was like ‘this is another Step Up and another Stomp the Yard’ and we said ‘no, it’s not because those movies look at hip-hop and urban culture in the United States and for the first time we are showing what young people are doing in the townships in terms of dance culture.”
Celebrating South African dance
According to Molebatsi, the comparison had to be made. “There are franchises that are very lucrative and have great numbers in South Africa. We’ve received good reviews and the reason they are good is we are not trying to emulate international movies. We are trying to say the dancing in South Africa is unique and we are celebrating that with the film.”
Even with plots that are pedestrian, the dance movie target market is very supportive. International dance movie Step Up: All In (2014), part of the Step Up dance movie franchise, following the release of the first Step Up in 2006, has enjoyed the longest life on the local box office, to date, for six consecutive weeks, from August to September (2014), after its release in August 2014. Box Office Mojo numbers show Step Up: All In grossed $1 503 812 (more than R18.3-million) and was ranked 11th in the South Africa Yearly Box Office in 2014.
Dance, just like music, is a universal language that can still be explored even more in local film and Molebatsi and his colleagues have planted the first seed. “We just wanted people to leave the cinema feeling excited about being young and South African.”