We are launching the MOVING DOCS Home Cinema, featuring one doc every month for you to watch online, wherever you like, whenever you like!
Kirstin Innes looks at our first one, Martha & Niki, to discover a dance film that moulds its form around its subjects.
What’s most striking, of course, is the way they move.
We watch them counting time on the stage, these two young-looking girls, swamped in huge sweatshirts and baggy trousers, as a parade of male dancers enact those same spindly, robotic flicks and jerks that hip hop crowds have come to expect. Three, two, one – and Martha and Niki bound into the space, their bodies synced perfectly, each beat and roll mirrored. They seem to fly; a two-part being, separate but one. Their astonishing energy and commitment to the moment vastly outshine the lanky, bored-looking b-boy crew they’re facing off against; their interpretation of what’s possible within the arena uses far more imagination, creativity and skill, and – let’s be honest – they’re having far more fun together.
In this touching, delicate documentary, Tora Mkandawire Mårtens’ camera follows Niki and Martha, young women born in Ethiopia and Uganda respectively but now living in Sweden, as they become the first ever women to win Juste Deboute, the world hip hop dance championships, then travel around the world for five years, competing, giving workshops and improving their craft. It’s easy to imagine the narrative beats most documentaries would hammer out from this synopsis: women in a man’s world; tearful back stories building into a well-worn tale of triumph over adversity. Instead, the filmmakers go somewhere else – finding a story not necessarily unexpected, but one that takes its cues from the art form it films. No tearful confessional speech could be as thrilling, eloquent and intimate as the experience of watching these women dance and be still and silent together, and this film realises that, has the quiet confidence to find most of its story in their physicality rather than their words. As Martha says at one point, “I use dance to tell my story.”
While Mkandawire Mårtens has clearly built up a close relationship with her subjects, there are certain things the audience is excluded from. We have no idea of their lives at home in Sweden – where they live, what they work as, what sort of education they’ve had, or even how they met – we only really see them on the road, in relation to dance and to each other. Mkandawire Mårtens even stated in a recent interview that she prefers not to push her subjects to spill all their secrets. We glean that Niki, who was adopted by a white, apparently middle-class Swedish family as a baby, has a very different worldview to the far more private Martha. Martha reveals she moved from Uganda to Sweden aged 14, and Niki comments in one point that her friend “has suffered – you can see it when she dances”, but the camera refuses to pry any further, leaving us to interpret what we can in Martha’s beautiful, closed face and the emotion that crosses it when she’s dancing. As a dancer, Martha is a raw jag of pain, spilling over with empathy; her moves are charged, intense and communicative – not words often associated with the show-boating slickness the hip hop circuit tends to reward.
On the floor as in life, Niki tends to take the lead, with her huge, assured smile and smoothly undulating body rolls. Her solos are cheeky (at one point, in the final of a competition in Brooklyn, she ducks and weaves across the floor in a split second, snapping her fingers at the crotch of her male opponent and spinning away, eliciting a “damn” from the judges) and suffused with the sheer joy of the moment. And Niki talks. Niki talks about the way male performers always shout louder and claim the spotlight, grabs a mike at a dance final in the Czech Republic to protest the sex segregated competition, and on a subway train back from a losing performance she dissects and dissects again her performance, her failings, generously shouldering all the blame while Martha gazes out the window.
Niki also talks about Martha; about how there is nobody else in her life that she can share this experience with, about the intensity of finding this partner, about how it is like being in love. And Mkandawire Mårtens is there, all the way, filming quietly and editing into the beat, as Martha begins to pull away...
Photos by Tora Mkandawire Mårtens