Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Martha & Niki (2015)

Back in the days when Suede was a great band I saw them at a concert, and I was so overwhelmed by how good it was that I began to cry. Something similar happened as I saw Martha Nabwire and Niki Tsappos dance in this new documentary about them. They are hip hop dancers, among the best in the world, and seeing them on the floor or on the stage, completely disappearing into their acts, letting their bodies move as if the laws of physics do not apply to them, as if they had become one with the music, deadly serious yet bursting with joy, is so mesmerising and so moving that I can think of few things to compare it with. The force, the energy, the technique, the rhythm, it is both raw power and life-affirming exuberance. And unlike how dancers are usually dressed, Martha and Niki dance wearing sneakers, loose-fitting sweatpants and college sweatshirts. They are not sexualised or objectified; it is their control of, and movement of, their bodies that is the focus, not their bodies in themselves.

Martha & Niki, made by Tora Mkandawire Mårtens, begins in 2010 as Niki and Martha are participating in Juste Debout, the world's biggest Street Dance competition. The final is in Paris and they win, becoming the first women to do so. They also become a global sensation. The film then follows them for four years, first from competition to competition, and then with more emphasis on their differences, which become more pronounced, and their partnership begins to crumble.

There are two things to consider here, one is the two dancers and the other is the film. Since they are so good, and such powerful personalities, it might be tempting to overlook the weaknesses of the film. One is the lack of context and specific information about the contests they participate in. It is clear that Juste Debout in Paris is a major thing but later in the film they are at various other competitions, such as one in the Czech Republic, and nothing is said about them, and why they are there and what significance it might have for their careers. There is also very little sense of how much time has passed. If I did not know that the film followed them for four years I would not have been able to tell, it might as well have taken place during a few months.

At one point Martha and Niki are in New York, competing in Brooklyn, but they do not win this time, they only come a close second. They seem to react to this with disproportional disappointment, and afterwards they go on a rather bizarre trip to Cuba, an all-inclusive tour package with a Salsa course included. Why did they do that? It felt like a desperate effort to save their partnership, but it was not spelled out in the film. That whole section instead felt almost like a satire of such tours. I also wondered why the filmmakers included so much of it, but it might be because going there convinced Martha that she needed to get away, and be by herself for a while, and not with Niki.

The last section also raised questions. It seemed as if Martha just left, without telling Niki anything; leaving her high and dry. Then, a year later, they are seen talking in a hotel room in Johannesburg. Why where they there? It first seemed as if Niki had gone there just to talk to Martha about why she left, and to sort out their affairs. If so, that seemed to be a very expensive way of making up (if indeed they had had a real falling-out). Or had they gone there together for a competition? If so, this was not mentioned. They did go to an orphanage in Soweto for a workshop together, but was that the reason why they were in South Africa to begin with? But if they had gone there together, then what had happened after Martha left Niki a year ago? Had they made up and were a team again? But if that was the case why did they now have what seemed like a heartfelt talk about what happened a year ago? I sometimes wondered, with so much left unsaid, if the film was staged, that their conflict was faked to add drama to the film. I do not actually think so, maybe the filmmakers just forgot that just because everything was obvious for them it might not be obvious for those watching it. But it did feel weird to have so many question marks surrounding most of the sequences. Such things would not matter as much in a work of fiction, and not at all in some films, but this is not such a film. This is a documentary and therefore I care about coherence, continuity and context.

So as a narrative and as a film Martha & Niki is not particularly impressive, but whenever they start to dance, all such negative thoughts disappear.

My two film blogging friends Fiffi and Sofia have also seen it; here are their thoughts (in Swedish):


  1. You are quite right in that the dancing is what sells this documentary and also what sets Martha and Niki apart. Still, I found a certain interest in following their respective journeys although they could have been portrayed clearer.

    It is stated that they took the dance trip as a way to find new inspiration, but I imagine that the filmmaker was completely swept away by the sheer absurdness of the whole situation (salsa chartertrip) and did not manage to kill this particular darling.

    1. Yes, it says so but it's still peculiar. What kind of inspiration were they hoping to gain? It did feel like when a couple have marital problems and try to (not) solve them by remaking the kitchen.