Hip-hop and break dancing aren’t usually things that come to mind when people think of helping those hurt by the conflict in Uganda. But in Breaking Cats, they are the tools that help Abramz Tekya, the documentary’s subject, get Ugandan children away from the violence in the country.
The film begins with the introduction of Tekya, the founder of Breakdance Project Uganda, an organization that trains Southern Ugandan children the art of breakdancing.
It follows Tekya through the poorest neighborhoods of South Uganda as he introduces children to B-boying — slang for break dancing — uniting them with an infectious enthusiasm for hip-hop and dance. He is accompanied by the legendary Rock Steady Crew, including B-boy pioneer Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón,
The film juggles many elements — from Tekya’s background to the conflict in Uganda — but makes them all work. It manages to provide an inspiring personal story: Tekya came from a childhood in the slums of the capital of Kampala and spread his success and passion for the B-boy culture to Ugandan children.
Bouncing Cats also gives viewers a clear understanding of the situation in the war-torn country, explaining the civil war between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that abducts Northern Ugandan children and either kills them or turns them into child soldiers.
The dance training Tekya provides is much more than just physical expression. The touching smiles on the faces of every kid working to perfect each move shows how dancing gives them an escape from the real world.
The dancers reflect their resourcefulness when using the words “bouncing cats” to drop a beat when there’s no access to a boombox or drums — it is a fitting origin for the title of the documentary.
Director Nabil Elderkin uses the film well to express the importance of the BPU. Pictures of the ghettos of Kampala and destruction caused by the LRA — shown through gruesome photos of dead bodies and mutilated children — are juxtaposed with bright shots of groups of grinning aspiring B-boys and girls, all while hip-hop streams through the background.
The film follows Tekya as he spreads his break-dance movement into the more volatile parts of Northern Uganda. The film quickly hooks the audience through anecdotes and personal testimonies, such as that from 15-year old Aghamu Shadia, a girl inspired by the BPU to set up clubs in her own neighborhood. The segment focusing on Alfred Otim, an orphan living with six other people in one home who is motivated to become a B-boy by Tekya, tugs at the heartstrings of those watching, giving the movie an intimate feel.
As the film goes on, it shows the partnership between the BPU and H.E.A.L.S., a group promoting the importance of play-therapy for war affected children. The audience learns much about the conditions in Uganda from this segment of the documentary, mostly from Claire Lewis, an Oxfam worker who discusses the shortages of food as a result of the humanitarian crisis and inability of Ugandans to farm their land.
Although many scenes in the film are moving, there are a few standouts that make the movie memorable. During the trip to Northern Uganda, Colón breaks down when expressing his desire to help the Ugandans while fearing that they might think he and his team the film are exploiting the film’s footage for profit, without the intention of truly helping the Ugandan people.
One of the last scenes in the film shows Tekya teaching John, a man severely mutilated by the LRA, how to breakdance. This moment is accompanied by K’Naan’s “Waving Flag,” creating an inspiring end to the documentary.
The soundtrack adds emotion and a look into the culture of the country — there is a definite theme of Western influence permeating Uganda, notably found in the track that samples Vampire Weekend beneath traditional Ugandan music.
In addition to capturing genuine moments, Elderkin also fully utilized his connections to the hip-hop world to relay the intent of the music.
Although somewhat disjointed from the focus of the film, appearances by will.i.am, K’naan and Mos Def commenting on hip-hop as a vehicle to bring communities together add true insight into the appeal of B-boying to Ugandans.
Their well-known names add appeal and greater possibility of exposure of the documentary. The gentle, rhythmic narration by rapper Common also adds to the strength of the movie.
Bouncing Cats is a touching documentary on the individual story of Tekya, the country of Uganda and the universality of hip-hop, showing off how much of an impact music can make.