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The African Cypher

by Brandon Edmonds / Images by Filipa Domingues / 17.08.2012

It was good to see a dog called Ella thanked in the credits of happening young film-maker Bryan Little’s vivid and sincere new documentary about township street dance, “The African Cypher”. Mahala used to share office space in Little’s offbeat production company Fly on the Wall, he made the definitive Fokofpolisiekar film, which once got him into a masterclass with Werner Herzog in New York, it pays to get it done people, and Ella was one of the best things about the place, her and the trampoline and beautiful down-to-earth Filipa Domingues, Little’s long-time producer, who wore oh-my denim cut-offs and passed out quarts on Fridays like some sort of blunted Florence Nightingale. Ella would bark at every single motorcycle that roared along Buitenkant street then slip between your legs like a furry shark. She’s a damn good dog and there’s something about Little’s open-hearted approach to his subject here that reminds me of her sweet spirit.

“What is it about dancing that elevates people,” Little asks in the film. The question works as an ordering thematic, a thread holding everything together. His camera literally captures that elevation over and over again in enraptured slow motion allowing the free flowing physicality of dance, the wonder of a body, a cypher, working in space, flipping and snaking, spinning and wheeling, to come alive.

What also elevates the dance crews, the Krump and B-boy outfits, the isiPantsula and sBhujwa dance teams, in a social and spiritual sense, is the incredible inter-reliance they build between members, the solid support system they fashion together, a solidarity developed through the demands of exploring their styles every chance they get. They dance for free. Because they want to. It has nothing to do with consumption or exchange. This is living, breathing folk art and seeing it will fill you with good nationalism, pride in us as South Africans capable of this kind of rapture.

The litany of sociological woes bedevilling townships, there for all to see the second you step foot in Soweto or the Flats, crime and poverty, the stuff that the ANC keeps shovelling under the carpet, is a reality the crews communicate in every gesture. This is what animates their astonishing shapes. What makes dance here so intense. It drives them all. It is the real shit left momentarily behind in the liberating transcendence of dance. Ready D from Prophets of Da City, looking fit and committed and inspiringly articulate as ever, why the fuck doesn’t he have his own talk-show, remembers apartheid cops intimidated by their B-boying in the 80s. They didn’t know what they were looking at but they knew it was dangerous, that it has the power to unite the poor, unite anyone really into it. So the cops made them spin on their heads on the tar. Turned their own art against them.

The brilliantly allegorical pantsula duo Shakers & Movers re-enact assaults and community experience right where people live. Their dance becomes a kind of spontaneous poor theatre, a mirror of the people. Little follows their complex relationship as the duo works through the kinks in their own personalities, the pressures of ambition and self-belief. The kind of film-making that ought to be all over our televisions all the time. That it isn’t is a sad indictment of the SABC.

“Dancing is sharing the happiness you have inside of you,” someone says. It sounds corny but the imagery outruns your cynicism. Something clicks and you realise creativity is everywhere in this country. On the bleakest patches of bare earth, in the thoroughfares, right on the street. The film gets at the best in us. A father tells his son, “I’m happy you’re dancing not stealing.” If there’s a more important moment in South African cinema in the last ten years I’ll come dance in your lounge.

It isn’t perfect. Little bungles the closing stages, the dance contest we’ve been waiting to see, taking too long to introduce us to all the crews, staying too long in the slowed down moments of dance, ultimately taking us out of the stories. But there is so much here that is vital and new. So much about how people actually hang out and live here now that it is essential viewing. As elevating as Tutu at his best.

“I love dancing like I love my girlfriend,” says B-boy Duane from Mitchell’s Plain. Her ears must be burning.

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