There is something exciting happening in communities all over the world, and filmmaker Adam Sjoberg is traveling to the ends of the earth to tell us the story. It is the story of hope in the face of adversity. It is a story of the power of creative expression. It is a story of the positive empowerment that hip-hop culture brings to struggling communities in countries far and wide.
Sjoberg has a passion for unveiling the largely under-represented side of developing countries — the side that is vibrantly hope-filled and rich with life and creativity. He is creating a documentary called Shake the Dust that beautifully illustrates a global hip-hop movement in which creativity spurs resilience in the midst of struggle and poverty. Sjoberg has trekked through the Middle East, Africa, and South America to document the inspiring stories of people who are a part of this movement. While the final cut of the feature-length film is still underway, Sjoberg has been keeping a blog where he shares short films from the project. The shorts are deeply moving and promise a powerful finished piece. Shake the Dust is a brilliant example of the immeasurable power that creativity and the arts have in inspiring change and restoring humanity.
When did you first get the idea for this documentary?
Back in 2008 I worked on a documentary film in Thailand about human sex trafficking. It was a very difficult project to work on given the subject matter and I spent a lot of my time there thinking about the developing world and the idea of telling stories from a Western perspective to a Western audience. I have traveled quite a bit to developing countries and always have such warm experiences with the people whose cultures always leave a lasting impression on me. I started to formulate an idea for a documentary that told the other side of the Third World’s stories. That, while touching on the great hardships they faced, told uplifting stories that dignified them — stories that, to the viewer, would make them more than just a face on a screen.
Can you describe your primary vision for this project? Has it evolved at all?
My primary vision hasn’t shifted much. It has always been to tell the stories of children in struggling communities around the globe using hip-hop culture and break-dancing as a means of telling those stories. What has evolved is my knowledge of hip-hop, my connection to the fundamentals of it, and my passion for this project. The more I film, and the more I travel, and the more I connect with these b-boys and b-girls, the more I’m convinced of the original impetus behind this project and the more I have become an advocate for holistic international journalistic practices that don’t just capitalize on suffering but cover the broad range of the human story.
What is the ultimate plan for this project? Are you going to produce a feature length film somewhere down the road?
There will be a feature length film. In the mean time I have been continually releasing short pieces to gain publicity, get the word out, and begin getting people excited about the final product. Dates and deadlines are always shifting, but I hope to have a final cut by spring of 2012.
What cities have you filmed in so far? What other destinations are on your horizon for this project?
I have filmed in Cairo, Egypt, Sana’a, Yemen, Kampala, Uganda, and Bogota, Colombia. I hope to film in Gaza, Cambodia, and another trip to Colombia and Haiti before the year is over. Crossing my fingers I can stay sane!
How do you connect with the people featured and involved in your film?
YouTube. It’s how they all stay connected to each other and it’s actually how most of them learn their moves. Additionally, whenever I meet one break-dancer in a given community, they immediately introduce me to everyone else. It’s such a family and community-oriented culture.
Can you comment on any fundamental similarities and differences in the hip-hop culture around the world?
Every individual hip-hop community has its own nuances. But overall they seem to have a general understanding that hip-hop is ultimately not a “me, me, me” culture. It’s about community, “each-one-teach-one,” and it’s about having a voice.
What do you have to say about the significance and power of creative expression and the potential it holds for humanity– in terms of hope, healing, etc.?
Wow. I could talk about that for hours. We are all, as a reflection of a Creator, creators. No matter whether it’s in “the Arts” or something else, something in our being desires to create. Additionally, I believe that we are, by nature drawn to stories. That’s why I love documentary filmmaking. I love telling stories — particularly true stories that will compel people to get out and be/make change.
In what specific ways have you seen the hip-hop culture produce a positive effect in the communities you’ve visited? Did you meet anyone with a particularly inspiring story?
I’ve met so many people with inspiring stories. Abramz Tekya, the founder of Breakdance Project Uganda, impressed me the most of anyone I met on my travels. He’s a twenty-something Uganda breakdancer , MC, and a hip-hop pioneer in Uganda. (Really, he’s kind of a celebrity in Kampala.) He has always put everyone else in his program before himself, and has instilled in all of the kids he’s mentored the same ideas of self-respect and desire for local social change. I always say that hip-hop’s influence in a community is going to depend entirely on the pioneers and leaders who are being heard by everyone else. I guess that’s why the Ugandan breakdancers are particularly socially minded and others-centered.
What can you tell me of the relationships and experiences you’ve had with the people you have encountered during the making of this film? How have these encounters impacted you and your understanding of their communities, struggles, and accomplishments?
Every person I’ve met in the process of making this film, whether they’re going to be in the film or not, has played an integral role in the project. Particularly in Uganda, I really connected with a couple of the breakdancers. They helped me with a lot of the filming (including running sound and “producing”). But when we weren’t filming, we would sit for hours and chat candidly about poverty, colonialism, and the future of their country. They taught me so much about what people in the developing world really want from “richer” Western countries. I fell like I learned more hanging out with these kids than I could have ever learned in a classroom about development and the potential “end of poverty.”
Has the experience of making this documentary impacted or changed you in any significant way? What is the most significant thing you have learned in the making of the film?
This process has had a life-long effect on me. This is my first feature length documentary so naturally I’m learning a lot in the process that will apply towards future projects. I have become a little bit of a “hip-hop-head” as they call it, and I have an ever-growing repertoire of hip-hop music in my iTunes library. And then add in all of the above that I’ve written.
I have yet to fully understand the impact this film has made on my life but I know for sure that it has changed me for the better, given me so much knowledge, expanded my world, and taught me to be a more compassionate filmmaker and a better listener (on a broad scale). This film is not my film. The storytellers are these b-boys and b-girls that I’ve been working with. It’s their film. I’m simply giving them a platform to tell their stories.
Check out www.Shakethedust.org to learn more, see more films, donate, and follow Adam around the world.