Film

Raindance 2020: Talking to “UPROOTED” director British filmmaker Khadifa Wong

“When I was a dancer, I often got frustrated by the stereotypes I saw and so I wanted to help bring about change and ensure that our stories were being told authentically. I started a production company that focused on increasing diversity and started making short films”. Khadifa Wong

UPROOTED, directed by Wong will have its international premiere at the Raindance Film Festival 2020. The documentary film celebrates the history, lineage and future progressions of jazz dance, features a stellar cast of leading industry experts, award-winning choreographers and legendary performers including Chita Rivera (West Side Story), Graciela Daniele (Chicago), Debbie Allen (Fame), Mandy Moore (La La Land) and Craig Revel-Horwood (Strictly Come Dancing) amongst others. A ground-breaking documentary going back to the roots of jazz dance in Africa and following the evolution of this incredible form through every single decade and genre. Whilst exploring and commenting on its political and social influences, the film is an honest conversation about jazz dance, addressing topics such as appropriation, racism, socialism and sexism. The film has an international premiere screening on November 4th and 6th, 2020. Watch here.

It is a story of triumph over adversity, oppression and privilege as well as a celebration, because ultimately, what all people have in common is rhythm and a basic human need to get down. ALT was lucky enough to talk to Wong about filmmaking, dance and racism.

How do you think racism has influenced Jazz dance?

Khadifa Wong

Racism has been intrinsic to the development of jazz dance, be it the birth of Pattin Juba after the Slave Act of 1739 that banned the use of drums, to the Cakewalk – a dance performed by Enslaved Africans mimicking their masters, to the questions we are asking in the film about appropriation, it is clear that racism has been one of the biggest influences on jazz dance. During the course of making the film we discovered that many African Americans had been omitted from the history books, many opportunities that were given to their white counterparts were denied to them because they did not have any legal recourse or their work undervalued because of the colour of their skin. Sadly, a lot of these issues are with us today and so it seems that racism is embedded in jazz dance as opposed to an influence.

 How is Jazz dance an original art form?

Jazz dance whilst it does span many branches of the same tree, began its journey as a social dance, a means to communicate and provide solace. When an art form is born out of oppression, it is the most authentic expression of a person and so it will always be original. Jazz dance has continuously evolved on its journey and each person who has partaken in the form has added something new or found a new way of expressing themselves and so they have kept it original.

What forms of African influence can be seen in Jazz dance today?

The majority of dances that helped to shape Jazz dance are from the West Coast of Africa, the Kalabari Dance on Nigeria; Adumu of the Maasai peoples (A coming of age jumping ritual); Gombey (a harvest dance in Senegal) and the Matorma from Sierra Leone. Today, The Azonto, Bela, Dingi Dingi, Etighi and Maplory are just a few examples of dances that influence jazz dance today.

And how much recognition do you think Africans get for “setting the trend?

Why did you want to tell this story?

Not nearly enough as they should, many dance institutions barely acknowledge it. One of the few benefits of social media is that people have been able to call out appropriation as soon as it occurs and platforms like Tik Tok have extended peoples reach and helped them elevate their own platforms. More and more people are starting to recognise the role Africans play in setting the trend and it is only going to get bigger and better as time goes on.

Debbie Allen features in UPROOTED

When Zak Nemorin first approached me to make the film, working with him was my main motivation, he’s such a talent and I have wanted to collaborate with him for a while and so he presented me with the opportunity to blend my former life as a dancer with my new life as a filmmaker. When we met our Producer Lisa Donmall-Reeve she encouraged us to look at the entire history of jazz and it was then that I discovered the discussions around race and appropriation in the jazz dance community. 2016 was a tough year, we saw Brexit and the election of Trump, both of those events marked a shift in people’s attitudes towards racism. I felt that many people I spoke to wouldn’t acknowledge the surge in racist attitudes and so I felt I had no voice. I knew our film would be a great opportunity to help start a conversation both in and out of the dance world and allow me to have my say on a world that I didn’t really feel welcome in at the time.

UPROOTED. Still

How does it feel to have the film screen at Raindance?

My goal was to make a film about Dance, and not a dance film, and so being at Raindance in such company as the other selected films is very humbling and really does make me feel proud of my whole team and everything we have accomplished.

What has lockdown been like for you?

Lockdown has been very mixed for me. I got Covid at the beginning and so that brought a lot of fear with it. I am most saddened at how the Arts are being neglected, I was a dresser on the Lion King before lockdown and it is incredibly sad that the show has just celebrated its 21st year and the theatre is dark. I have been able to reconnect with old friends which has been nice, but I worry for my industry and for its future. My hope is our Government will realise the value we bring to this country and do more to help.

How did you get into filmmaking?

When I was a dancer, I often got frustrated by the stereotypes I saw and so I wanted to help bring about change and ensure that our stories were being told authentically. I started a production company that focused on increasing diversity and started making short films supported by friends and family and my work in theatre. I’ve been very lucky to have the support of so many people.

What do you think will be the biggest fallout for filmmakers as a result of Covid?

I think the fallout will be good, we will see a lot of opportunity, but I do worry we will become in the immediate aftermath at least, a little more risk averse so people may not take a chance on new on-screen talent as much and that people will want to feel comforted by familiar films and franchises. Money will also be tight for many, so people may not want to watch something too different. But there are many exciting filmmakers and movements happening in the film industry that fills me with the confidence that the future will be a lot brighter down the line.

UPROOTED still

Tells us abit about some of the people in your documentary?

We have over 50 people in the documentary so I think the best thing to say is that all of these people are remarkable artists, who all share a passion for jazz dance, the beauty is that although they have different opinions they are united in their commitment to the form and its future progression.

What did you shoot the documentary on and what was the challenges to making the film?

We shot on a Red Scarlett camera and although we had many challenges in making the film as all independent films will do, I was fortunate enough to have a brilliant team who always managed to turn an obstacle into an opportunity and so this film, like jazz dance itself, is an example of triumph over adversity.

UPROOTED will screen in the Arty Strand during the Raindance festival, which takes place from Wednesday, 28 October through Saturday, 7 November, 2020.

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