Some disclaimers. I was asked to review this by the film's marketing peoples. I have met Sidiki once, perhaps twice; we've talked briefly.
First. Go SEE IT! If you live in NYC, go see it. It closes Thursday. Quad Cinema 34 West 13th Street. Sign up for updates in case it comes your way! (That's if you don't live in NYC).
Second. Get involved in a conversation about this film. I say that because I believe that the filmmakers need to hear from you -- there's much to respond to and a lot to have an opinion about -- and because I believe that we should be talking about this film.
You Don't Need Feet To Dance is a documentary about Sidiki Conde. Who is Mr. Conde? I'm not adding taglines, epithets, descriptors deliberately; the urge to describe is part of what I think leads us astray with this film. I stress that point because I have found reading and understanding this film to be extraordinarily difficult.
As an experience, You Don't Need Feet is beautiful, the music is extraordinary, and the dance is fabulous. The narrative is not linear; it's meditative and accordingly slow. Indeed, our ninety minute nonchalant journey across Mr. Conde's past and into his present is deceptively easy. But that doesn't make it a simple film.
The title sets you up for a piece that features a lot of dancing, discusses disability and dance, perhaps introduces you to the world of disability and dance. The title also suggests that this will be a disability inspiration flick. You know the kind: Disabled person overcomes the challenges of being (usually) physically-challenged to go on to be an inspiration to those both near and far. Obstacles fall at the first glance, challenges melt away, tears flow freely, and everyone feels good at the end.
You Don't Need Feet wants to be that film so much. It sets up in silence. Mr. Conde wakes up (in silence, alone), gets out of bed, gets to the bathroom, and takes a shower. We all get a good look at his body and its difference. We watch how he moves -- a variety of responses are possible, of course, but the cinematography wants you to get a sense of the obstacles of his life. Then, he tells his disability story, Suddenly, the camera angle obliges him to look up to meet it, thereby alerting us to the ensuing inspirational thing.
We watch Mr. Conde come down the stairs on his hands, assemble his chair and go out into the world. Before long, his imam tells us Conde's an inspiration. An occupational therapist from a school where he is employed repeats the idea, focusing on his motivational effect on his students at the "special" and "inclusive" school. Said OT is "blown away" by this person with a disability ... and a stream of the usual cliches follow. Mr. Conde's art and artistry do not register for the OT. As therapy, however, they make the children sweat and move which is good for them! And because Mr. Conde has an impairment (he and several other people spend a lot of time rejecting the idea that he is disabled -- more on that later), he is a role model: because he can do it, they can. Even when they are bored or tired or ....
We are treated to some usual scenes: bus lift, subway hazards, subway failed elevators. A moment of staged disbelief at an inaccessible venue. I say staged, because you don't arrange to hold and film a workshop at someone's house and invite a powerchair user and a manual chair user and not notice that your place is inaccessible. (Do you?) Later, we get some of the usual commentary. Mr. Conde isn't disabled; he has a "leg problem." He can do everything any normal person can do. The sentiment is reiterated by several of the film's personages, including Mr. Conde himself. There's a lot of stress and pride on the fact that he needs no help.
Yet despite all this, the film does not work as an inspiration flick. And that's where things get interesting.
For the inspiration genre to work its magic, things have to come out right. Your disabled person has to rise above adversity and triumph. This simply does not happen, and the failure of events to "work" creates a huge tension in the film. Suddenly, the silences and lacunae become more interesting than much of the highlighted content. Indeed, as the film meandered over its ninety minutes, I became increasingly aware of how the contradictions and underdevelopments pointed to, but never fully revealed a massively interesting narrative.
For a film about a dancer, we rarely get to see Mr. Conde move. The most extensive sequence is towards the end of the film and it looks to be from a clip of a performance many years past. Why is that? We see Mr. Conde travelling up and down stairs on his hands; we know that he dances on his hands; we see a powerchair in the corner of the entryway to his building (where he keeps his stuff), because, well, it isn't easy to haul yourself up all those stairs and get your wheelchair up there, too. And the incentive to do that more than once a day has got to be tiny versus the incentive to preserve your body and your mobility. Is he in pain? Are his shoulders a mess?
Mr. Conde is an amazing dancer -- virtuosic -- I/we have much to learn from him. To me, the absence of dance raises some very large questions. I can guess at some of the answers, but because the film does not go there we cannot either. For me to indulge would be speculation, but my goodness the questions linger. And opportunities are missed. If you have watched any dance films, particularly the recent ones, you will know about dance, pain and physical suffering. What happens when disability is in the mix? What is disability-related, what is dance-related? How do you trade your dance and disability bodies? What choices has Mr. Conde made; how have they worked?
Questions loom especially large in the immigration thread. America loves a good old immigration story; most stand out for their inspirational qualities. But this one does not work out.
Mr. Conde's story hints at the question of how immigration works when you aren't particularly high profile, wealthy or desirable to a corporation, but the details of the story are hidden. We know that his music and dance bring him to the US and that he meets his second wife here (she is not shown in the film, and her absence is another one of those holes). We don't hear about how that transition happens. Instead, the stories of the contrasts between his life in the States and his life in Guinea dominate. We learn a little of the hardship, a little of the children who died, a little of his mother and of the pain of being separated at the moment when she died. We hear of longing and loss, but the film does not go deeper; these threads are only tendrils.
The American immigration narrative likes to emphasize success -- usually financial success. At the time of the shoot, Mr. Conde is struggling to make ends meet. He is months behind on his rent; he's busking to make money (which is how he survived when he started out). He's lost his band; he couldn't pay them. Times are hard; no one is hiring -- despite the fact he is ready to work and can do anything. His regular teaching gigs seem to have faded; I can't tell whether this is a permanent circumstance or an issue of timing: the film seems to have been shot in the summer when the schools would have been on break. The website seems to suggest some of his teaching work is in the past.
Mr. Conde seems to feel a deep (perhaps from personal experience? -- it's not clear) connection with various people from the streets and compares America's homelessness to the shared sense of communal responsibility which he states prevents much homelessness back in Guinea. Mr. Conde utters the critical line about not wanting to be a millionaire, but the film again will not allow him or us to explore this further. Does he reject the American immigrant myth? Is this a philosophical or religious slant on life? How do these things go together?
Similarly, I wanted so much more of Mr. Conde's music. There's a lot of silence and/or pedestrian noise. We hear the music of instruction, but I wanted to hear so much more of Mr. Conde's work. The absence is striking. Mr. Conde explains in a one-off that the film drops immediately: it is hard to get everyone together, for the time necessary to really practice and in the work. That raised another set of questions: Why is that? Who would support this work? What happens to artists as they transition from their homelands to new countries and struggle to make it?
So underdeveloped is the film that we barely get to see Mr. Conde's friends and inner circles. He is surrounded by people, but their characters are not expanded. This lack of development makes it easy to miss what I think of as the key scene in the film: No one shows up to a party and celebration that Mr. Conde and his friends have been planning for three months. Why not?
This is the key moment because it reveals the importance of all those unanswered questions. The film is a documentary about Mr. Conde's life, yes. But it does not focus on his dancing or his music -- no matter what the filmmakers call it. The meat, the actual narrative of this film concerns transmissions and miscommunications.
How is it that this talented artist is struggling in New York? Why is it that New York has not been able to see and hold on to his talents and gifts? Why is he living in a place that by dint of the stress it places on his body hinders (will come to hinder) his ability to be an artist? Given the important connection of physicality, dance and manhood in Mr. Conde's culture, what does it mean to claim or embrace disability as more than a physical reality? What does a disabled reality mean in New York versus in Guinea? Could accessing New York's disability world support Mr. Conde's artistry? What happens to culture, tradition, identity and personhood when it is too difficult to get together and play? What happens when your family life is split across two worlds? How do you handle and live the emotions of loss and longing? What role can faith play in your life? When the seminal cultural myths of your new country don't work for you, what do you do? What does it mean to be teaching West African dance and music culture to mainly white people (one of whom says you are on "African time" when you are late through no fault of your own)? What happens to your hopes and dreams when life is hard?
The filmmakers do not tell and perhaps cannot know. I wonder if Mr. Conde were asked, what he would say.