Adam Sjöberg : Shake the Dust

We are not responsible for the place where we are born or the family we come from, we just have to deal with it. By joining this world, we inherit a place shaped by our predecessors. 
The natural answer to this fact is to become accustomed to our place before being able to change it, if we have the opportunity and if we feel the need. Based on the places we come from, becoming accustomed to them can sometimes mean learning how to survive.
Nonetheless, as much as our social and cultural origins may differ, we all have the same emotions, desires, and passions. 
In reality, more things bring us together than separate us. Self-fulfillment is an inherent driver for every single individual whatever their origin or context. In his documentary “Shake the Dust” (available on Netflix and Vimeo), director Adam Sjoberg places emphasis on this last point by painting the portrait of B.boys coming from such diverse countries as Cambodia, Yemen, Colombia and Uganda; but all driven by a furious love for break dance. 
Having had the chance to meet Mr. Sjoberg at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem after a screening of the documentary, I could not resist asking him more details about his work. A few email exchanges later and here we are, with the below interview. Thanks to Mr. Sjoberg for his time.
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“You would be surprised how innovative, persistent, courageous, and entrepreneurial these b-boys and b-girls are off the dance floor”

 

Can you please briefly introduce yourself, for the people that are not familiar with your work?

My name is Adam Sjoberg and I’m a documentary photographer, director and producer based in Los Angeles.  I’ve spent the better part of my adult life traveling to over 60 countries, primarily telling stories of hope and restoration in places that are traditionally viewed and portrayed negatively in the media.

When did you develop the idea to create a documentary showcasing the b.boy experience in countries that are significantly underrepresented in the media?

In 2007 I was working on a documentary on sex-trafficking in Thailand.  Sex-trafficking is a topic that needs to be talked about and highlighted – but I was unhappy with the way we were attempting to the tell the story.  Rather then dignifying these victims, we were pigeon-holing them into a place where victimhood defined them.  I vowed to make a documentary about youth around the world where they were handed the microphone and given the opportunity to tell their story the way they wanted.

I’m a huge fan of hip-hop – and upon some initial research I realized that breaking was a very popular activity in many of these underrepresented areas – so that very naturally became my hook.  And I’m so glad it did, because there was a much richer global narrative under the surface than I could have imagined.

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                                                           Uganda

How did you learn about and initiate contact with the people featured in the documentary?

By sheer coincidence I was able to gain an introduction to Breakdance Project Uganda through several mutual friends that lived in Kampala and were connected with the organization.  I flew to Uganda in 2010 on a whim and through my connection was able to find BPU’s practice.

We talked quite a bit before they allowed me to film them but it was really a life-changing experience being involved.  Erick and Fahad (two breakers in the film) are like brothers to me now and we continue to stay in touch to this day.

Was it more difficult to film in some countries than others? Why?

The cultural barrier and sheer depth of poverty in Cambodia made it emotionally challenging (and sometimes lonely) for me.  But Yemen was logistically challenging.

It was not easy to get a visa and I was in Cairo for several days waiting to hear if I would even be let in.  Thankfully it worked out.  Additionally, I attempted on two separate occasions to film with Camp Breakerz in Gaza and failed both times.  The second time I was detained and questioned by the Egyptian military.

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                                                             Colombia

Nas is the Executive Producer on this project. What does that really man? How involved was he in the creation of this project?

Nas was very generous with his time.  To be clear, when he got on board I’d been working on the film for 4+ years.  But we would schedule screenings with him and get his notes.  Of course he also offered his brand, name, and credibility as a pure OG of hip-hop which helped gain notoriety for the film that it might not have had otherwise.  He was also very generous with press and private events to help promote the film and stories of those in it.

In 2006 Nas released an album called “Hip Hop is Dead.” Did you have the impression that nostalgia was one of the feelings that inspired Nas to be a part of this project?

Certainly.  Nas cares very deeply about education – both in general and about hip-hop history and black history.  The heart of this film beats to the same rhythm as Nas.’  It’s no wonder Harvard named its hip-hop fellowship after him.

During the documentary, one of the young Ugandans defined poverty as a mindset, something that you have in your heart, or not. Is the real achievement of all these b. boys the fact that they have developed a mindset to define themselves?

I realize that breaking isn’t necessarily going to end all of the struggles these characters face.  But overcoming mental poverty – which really translates to self-hatred – is crucial.  And for many of these breakers they were able to do things through dance that they didn’t ever think possible.  That’s breaking free of the “Matrix” that poverty keeps people in.  Once you’ve broken through that barrier – there will still be challenges – but the biggest one has been shattered.  You would be surprised how innovative, persistent, courageous, and entrepreneurial these b-boys and b-girls are off of the dance floor.  That being said, many of them are making a good living promoting, performing, and organizing within the dance community.

The different protagonists present in the documentary seem to have found a kind of internal peace while living in a complicated environment. Do you think that their internal peace is innate to their personalities, or based on the fact that they have this deep passion for their art?

Every single one of these characters has a different story and different temperament.  There is a lot going on off screen that they’re not letting us in on.  Internal peace is something every human in the world chases or seeks every day – regardless of circumstance.  But I do think that having purpose makes us centered, present, mindful, and thankful.  That is evident with anyone that is doing what they love to do on a regular basis.

On a personal level, why and how did you decide to become involved in this project?

I’m a curious person.  I’m also skeptical.  And having traveled quite a bit, I started to realize that people are people no matter where you go.  I began to be repulsed by the neocolonialist post-industrial mindset of the first world – the one percent that we in America live in.  Africa is not a place to pity.  It’s the home of diverse cultures, people groups, terrains and wild-life.  Its wealth of history.  If you go back far enough – every person on the planet can trace their genetic lineage back to Africa.  It’s the original Garden of End – the center of the world.  Not New York City. Not London.  Not Hong Kong.  In Africa is the spring from which all things grew.  That mentality is what drives my work.

Can you talk to us a bit about your new project “I Am Sun Mu”?

I began working on “I Am Sun Mu” a few years ago.  It’s a story about a North Korean defector artist who lives and works in Seoul, South Korea under the pseudonym “Sun Mu” which translates to “no boundaries.”  While serving in the North Korean military before he escaped, Sun Mu was a propaganda artist for the regime.

He now uses those same skills to make satirical art about the Kims – as well as painting stories of hope and idealism for a united peninsula in the future.  I was introduced to Sun Mu through Liberty in North Korea, an organization that helps advocate and provide resources for defectors as they make the treacherous journey from North Korea, to China, and finally to safety.

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