A few years back, photographer and filmmaker Adam Sjöberg came across a YouTube video of a kid breakdancing. While there are tons of videos of breakdancers from all around the world doing jackhammers and windmills on YouTube, this video of a kid named Erick was intriguing to Sjöberg because, first of all, Erick was such an incredible dancer and also because he was from Uganda.
It’s not one of the first places that comes to mind when you think of hip-hop culture, but there is an active breakdancing community in the capital city of Kampala, and, as Sjöberg did more research, he learned that there are b-boys and b-girls—inspired by the original b-boys from the Bronx but putting their own spin on the art form—breakdancing on the streets of developing nations ranging from Cambodia to Colombia.
"I was very surprised to find it in some places more than others—Yemen, for example, I never would’ve guessed," says Sjöberg, who had long wanted to make a film in which kids from underserved and post-conflict zones would have a chance to tell their stories. He realized breakdancing and hip-hop was his way in. "I was like, that’s it—that’s an amazing thread to tie all these stories together," he says.
So in 2009, Sjöberg, whose credits include a promotional video for Warby Parker and an ESPN documentary on football player Troy Polamalu, got on a plane and flew to Uganda to begin shooting what would become Shake the Dust. Produced by David Jacobson, who co-produced Lee Daniels's The Butler, the documentary shows off the talents and tells the stories of kids—some orphans, some former drug addicts, some refugees, some former gang members—who have all found a sense of community and purpose through breakdancing.
Co.Create talked to Sjöberg about everything from shooting in Yemen to how he got hip-hop legend Nasir "Nas" Jones to come on board as executive producer of the film, which will be available for viewing on Vimeo exclusively for 30 days beginning April 14 before starting a limited theatrical run and being released on VOD platforms, including iTunes, on May 19.
Co.Create: Can you explain the title of the film? What does Shake the Dust mean?
Sjöberg: I had started seeing all these YouTube videos of kids breakdancing, mostly in the slums and in poor urban neighborhoods around the world, and there was the same visual in almost every single one of the kids was kicking up dust. So it very quickly just came to me—Shake the Dust—and this idea of shaking it off, shaking off the dust.
How did you find the kids featured in the film?
It began with Uganda. I reached out to an organization there—Breakdance Project Uganda—and just on a whim got on a plane and went and met them. It really took building trust because some of these breakdancers have had Western media come in and take advantage of them. So I was just building trust and letting them know that I was there to let them tell their story and not to take advantage of them, and I became really close with a lot of the Ugandans, and once I was in with them, it was a lot easier to get in elsewhere.
A friend of a friend who is a journalist in Yemen emailed me in 2010, and said, "Hey, I just recently wrote a small story about some breakdancers here in Yemen. I heard that you’re doing a documentary about breakdancing around the world. You should come here." And I’m just like, "Yemen. Okay." I got on a plane and flew to Yemen, then began filming there right as the Arab Spring broke out. As you can imagine, that was interesting.
There is a scene in Shake the Dust in which the kids in Yemen decide to dance in a public square in Sana’a so they can show everyone what they do. As the scene begins, the police are milling about, and you can’t help but worry about what kind of reaction these boys are going to spark. What was it like shooting that sequence?
I was there during a really peaceful moment in modern Yemen time. I mean, it was a few years of relative rest, and then right after that things got pretty bad, and today, it’s a really sad situation in Yemen. So it’s interesting for me to watch that footage now and think back because I was really quite nervous.
All of us were talking about, "Hey, what’s going to happen if the cops come?" And, basically, we ended up filming in this main square, it’s in the old city, and it’s a lot of traditional people that are not necessarily going to be a huge fan of Westernization. After a few minutes of filming, the crowd got so huge—mainly because they were so into it—that we had to break it up. We were like, "Alright, let’s go before this gets out of control," and we kind of ditched.
It was great to see that people did appear to enjoy the performance.
Yemenis love to dance. I went to a wedding while I was there, and they form a circle, and they dance. Everyone has their own version of what you call a cypher, which is the dance circle. Every culture has that, and Yemenis are no different.
The group of breakdancers we meet in Colombia formed a family based on their shared love of breakdancing, and they move to Bogota one-by-one, get jobs, save money and then bring another person from the group to the city. They took care of one another.
That was such a common thing that I found in Uganda and Cambodia and Colombia—a lot of these kids had lost their families. They lost both of their parents, or one of their parents, and many of them at very young ages were living on their own. Some of them were straight-up street kids. But as soon as they found these hip-hop communities, they had family again and that support structure.
I was struck by how strong and resilient these kids are. They have tough lives, but you don’t get a "pity me" vibe from anyone in the film.
Yeah. It was really important for me to not over-sensationalize their stories. It was just, let them tell it, and let it speak for itself. I’ve said this many times, but I think one of our first reactions when we think about kids that live in a slum or an underserved neighborhood is pity.
And I think pity has a place sometimes, but pitying someone is sort of looking down on someone, and that is what I wanted to avoid, the feeling that we, as a Western audience, were looking down on these people. If anything I look up to these kids, genuinely, and when they tell their stories to you, they’re not told to elicit pity. That’s not at all the vibe that you get from them.
How did you shoot this film? I assume you had a small crew and did your best to melt into the background.
It evolved. When I first started filming it, I was still doing it on my own dime, traveling mostly by myself, hiring people in country, and really kind of running and gunning it. And then as time went on, I at least had to travel with a fixer or a producer, especially in Yemen—I had a fixer and a translator there, and in Colombia I had a fixer and a translator.
And then on the ground I would hire people as needed to assist me, but it was necessary for this project to not be invasive with a big crew. Even to this day, that’s the way that I approach most filming scenarios—I don’t want to be overly invasive or get too big. I think the beauty of documentary is that you can be small.
Had you ever shot any kind of dancing before, and are there particular things you have to do or take into consideration when you are filming people dancing? I would think it wouldn’t be so easy to get all the coverage you would ideally like to have.
I enjoy the challenge of limitations. I think limitation pushes me to be more creative in how I film something. So one of the sequences in Uganda is very collaborative with the kids. It was at night, and I said I wanted to do some filming of them popping and locking, and so we hired a boda-boda—a motorcycle taxi driver—and had him turn on his motorcycle and rev the engine, and a bunch of the kids kicked up dust, and then they took turns dancing in front of this motorcycle taxi’s headlights. And we shot that with one camera.
Another thing: In Uganda, one of the breakdancers there, his name is Oscar. When I went there, I would pay him to help me carry equipment or run the mic and through that process, I showed him how to run sound, and I showed him how to start working the camera. A few years after that I went back to Uganda, and he had taken out a micro-loan and bought a camera and was shooting a bunch. And then a year later I saw that he had work that was showing in Zurich or Denmark or somewhere. And a couple months ago I saw him highlighted on The New Yorker’s Instagram feed.
You helped to launch a career.
It’s pretty powerful story. I could’ve brought in some American to handle audio with me and handle carrying equipment, but I’m glad that I didn’t do that because I don’t think I would have built relationships in the same way, and I don’t think I would’ve taken the time to teach Oscar how to run a camera.
When you started shooting Shake the Dust in 2009, did you have all the money you needed to make the film, or did you simply start shooting, figuring you would raise funds along the way?
If you’re crazy you just go, which is what we did. And if I could do it all over again, I mean, if I had known how much was ahead of me, I wouldn’t have started it. But sometimes just diving in headfirst is the best thing because if you overthink it, you’ll talk yourself out of doing it.
The thing that I had in my favor is that I picked a genuinely good topic. I picked a topic—kids and hip-hop—that people ended up really caring about, and so once I started filming it, it wasn’t hard to get people behind this project.
Nas is an executive producer of the film. How did you get him involved, and why was it important to get him involved?
Nas is a legend in the hip-hop world. His album Illmatic is largely considered to be one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, and he also has a heart for kids that are growing up in the kind of neighborhoods he grew up in. I had a mutual professional acquaintance that knew Nas and was able to get the trailer in front of him, an early trailer a couple of years ago, and he was very excited about being involved.
And the reason I think he’s necessary, I mean, we’re honored to have him, but having a heavyweight like him put their weight behind the project only helps to elevate the platform from which these kids can tell their story. That’s why it’s most important.
He’s been a huge supporter of the film and a creative voice in helping get it right. As somebody who knows hip-hop, having him involved in a movie like this was a huge asset. He is such a legend and knows the history so well because he’s a part of it.
He had to have been key in putting together the soundtrack for the film.
Putting together the soundtrack was one of the most daunting tasks, and even though we have Nas involved in this film, it still is a relatively small indie film, so to end up with the score and the soundtrack that we ended up with, I’m amazed.
The soundtrack is very global. We’ve got a Palestinian artist, an Egyptian artist, a Ugandan artist, a Colombian artist, a Cambodian artist, and then some of my favorite hip-hop artists from here in the states, including Talib Kweli, Common, and Nas.
When I watched this film, I found myself thinking it must have been hard to edit because I imagine you had a lot of worthy performances and stories that you simply had to cut.
Yeah. I hope I never have to edit a movie this hard ever again. It was enormously challenging. I do a lot of editing myself on various projects, and I’ve worked on lots of different things, a lot of short-form stuff, all different feature-lengths. And there’s a reason this took a year and a half to edit—it isn’t one story. When it’s one person you’re following, there are only so many ways you can tell the story, whereas this is a very global story.
There’s a meta-narrative of the hip-hop history that’s happening, and then there are the individual stories of these kids that aren’t particularly tied to each other except for that they all love hip-hop. So it was really challenging. But ultimately, I think we landed on a version of the film that tells the overall story well, and we can still connect to each individual character.
I had a couple of amazing editors that came in and helped me. There’s an editor named Mariana Blanco who helped bring it to the finish line, and she’s now working with me on my next film. [Noam Kroll is also credited as an editor on the film.]
Have any of the kids in Shake the Dust seen the film, and if so, what was their reaction?
Erick and Fahad, who are two of the boys from Uganda, they came out here [to Los Angeles] for six weeks and stayed with me in California this past November, which was an amazing experience. One of the most moving moments for me so far was when we showed the film at one of the biggest breakdancing competitions in the world to a smaller, intimate audience of about 150 people—all breakdancers. Eric and Fahad got to see it for the first time alongside all these other breakdancers and then got up afterward and did a Q&A and spoke eloquently about their love for breakdancing and their community.