Uganda has been in the news lately. You may have missed it, but last month President Obama ordered 100 troops (almost entirely in an advisory capacity) to Uganda to help the government to suppress the ultra-violent Lord’s Resistance Army (the LRA). The LRA has been destabilizing and terrorizing Uganda for years, abducting and forcing into military service children. Refuse and they cut off your nose, your ears, your hands, or simply kill you. Uganda’s history is one of colonial oppression, brutal strongmen (Idi Amin), and perpetual civil war, and the LRA is symptomatic of this larger disease.
Onto this scene comes “breakdancing!” Yes, you heard me right. Watching the new documentary “Bouncing Cats,” set to premier on the Documentary Channel November 19 (with many repeat showings), I was reminded of Cedric the Entertainer’s line in the brilliant, Spike Lee-directed The Original Kings of Comedy: he says, and I paraphrase, “Back in the day, we didn’t solve our problems with violence: we would breakdance.” Cedric then goes on –in hilarious fashion- to demonstrate how a throwdown in a dance club might go.
This same idea, that dancing can bring peace and bridge divides, is at the center of “Bouncing Cats,” which details the efforts of Breakdance Project Uganda (BPU) to heal the wounds that run so deep in this central-African nation and to get kids focused on a worthwhile endeavor.
The documentary features narration by the rapper-poet ‘Common’ and follows the journey of ‘Crazy Legs’ and his ‘Rock Steady’ crew, arguably the originators of breakdancing in the United States in the 1970s, as they travel to Uganda to link up with BPU founder ‘Abramz’. Crazy Legs tours the slums of cities in both the North and the South of Uganda. Compared with his poor youth in the Bronx, he finds the depravity in Uganda “hellish.”
Interspersed with Crazy Legs’ travels are interviews with war victims, BPU figures, and expert commentary. The mise en scene of the film is itself hip-hoppy. Throughout the documentary, we jump back and forth between static and stock footage to grainy, cinema verite-style shots of Uganda’s slums and its more appealing countryside. Throughout, we see Crazy Legs and Abramz teaching kids about the hip-hop culture and the finer points of breakdancing moves, and we learn that the title of the film — “Bouncing Cats” — is the phrase, used in staccato-like fashion, to simulate a beat when no music is available. Say “bouncing cats” ten times quickly and you will understand.
The main question for me is: ultimately, where can something like BPU go? Programs that teach under-privileged kids, golf, for instance, in America help youth to comprehend that it takes discipline, devotion, and concentration — and keeping your nose clean — to succeed in sport. Learn those lessons with golf and even if you don’t make it to the PGA, you’ll succeed in whatever avocation or occupation you embrace. But in America, contrary to what those in the ‘Occupy’ movement claim, there is opportunity. Your efforts can pay off. You may not be part of the 1 percent –whatever that really means– but you can carve out a good life.
Is that true in Uganda? You can learn to dance, understand your adversary, and stay out of trouble, but to what end? Dancing didn’t end the United States Civil War (massive force did), and it took another 100+ years to end racial segregation and oppression in America. I was truly moved by the idealism this documentary captured and by all measures it’s a well-made film, but can BPU itself survive and affect substantial change? View “Bouncing Cats” and decide for yourself.