Getting to the heart of dance


SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: A documentary about the lives, passions and struggles of South African street dancers premiered at the Encounters Documentary Film Festival in June and will also screen at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) this month.

The African Cypher was conceived when Red Bull South Africa approached award-winning filmmaker Bryan Little’s Fly on the Wall Productions in 2011 to make short teaser films for the inaugural Red Bull Beat Battle – a search for the best dance crew in South Africa.

“While shooting the short films we realised that there was a much bigger story to be told, so we started shooting a full length documentary concurrently,’ explains Little. “As a white guy from Cape Town, what really attracted me to this project was the opportunity to explore street dance culture in different parts of our country.

“I went in completely ignorant and told the story from that starting point, which makes it really interesting for anyone watching the film who is perhaps also unaware of these vibrant sub-cultures, like isiPantsula and Sbhujwa.’

He notes that during filming, themes of identity, confidence, courage, passion and the ability of dance to elevate people above their struggles emerged. “Thanks to the characters involved, this is no ordinary dance documentary. There is a raw wildness and truth to it that should speak to all of us.’

Massive response

Little’s previous documentary Fokofpolisiekar was named Best South African Documentary at Encounters in 2009.

“Encounters has become our home for the world premieres of our films. The team there is incredible and deserve all our support,’ says Little. “At the premiere of The African Cypher we had a massive, unrestrained, response from the audience – at times it was so vocal it felt like a “shebeen screening’, as Encounters’ Mandisa Zitha put it.’

The documentary was in part funded by Red Bull South Africa and all funds went into hard costs. “I am blessed with a crew of filmmakers from production to post-production that are passionate about film and gave of their skills and experience for very little financial reward,’ says Little.

They were also hired by Red Bull International to shoot a commercial. “They got really excited about some of the footage from the Red Bull Beat Battle virals we shot. The commercial went really well and I think that international interest in the project has grown from there,’ notes Little.

Pre-production started in June 2011 and post-production was completed in June 2012. Director of photography (DOP) Grant Appleton shot on two Canon 5Ds in “cinestyle 16×9’ in high definition, with additional material shot on Phantom and RED Epic. “The 5Ds performed remarkably well and their size allowed us to get into really intimate scenes as well as allowing us into more “dangerous’ environments without drawing too much attention,’ he notes.

Appleton was recently the VFX DOP on blockbuster Chronicle for 20th Century Fox. “He has incredible talent and experience and he made the 5D mossie sing like a lark,’ says Little.

Going deeper

They shot on locations across the country and spent months in Soweto, Orange Farm, Mohlakeng and the Cape Flats trying to integrate themselves into the communities. “We were very careful about how we approached the situation – as filmmakers we have the power of the camera and that is easily abused. People want to be on TV, want to be famous and it is easy to go in and exploit a culture with your camera and pull away with superficial footage.’

Little notes that they wanted to go deeper by finding out what really fuels the passion and fear of the dance crews. “We spent a lot of time at first just meeting people and hanging out in the communities, drinking with people, meeting their friends, their moms and elders and family.

“I only wanted our camera to go in when it could be followed by our hearts. It sounds cheesy, but I believe you have to care about the people you are filming or nothing special will come out of it no matter how beautiful the shots.’

He notes that the look of the documentary is “quite natural’. “We tried to stay true to the raw feel of the different communities and allow the textures and characters to speak for themselves. The films’ richness can be attributed to the incredible access we got into the dancers’ lives and their communities,’ explains Little.

“We spent a lot of time with the dancers cruising around their communities and working together to find interesting locations to perform and shoot – most of the time these locations were ones that the guys were naturally using and just happen to be really cinematic in themselves. Some of my favourite scenes were shot at the magic hour of winter light found in Soweto / Jo’burg. This is truly a beautiful asset to have in the film, and it’s free!’

He describes capturing street dance on film as “chaos’. “When a crew like the Real Actions in Orange Farm gets revved up and start blocking intersections, huge crowds form, the cops start buzzing the area and the guys feed on the energy getting wilder and wilder. It’s exhilarating, but also a challenge to direct.

“My philosophy is to try and create a three dimensional feeling for the scene to allow the audience into the space, so I will have one camera shooting the action, another shooting reactions and wider shots as well as shots from the points of view of passers-by or nearby windows, and then, if possible and we have a third camera, I will personally look for really intimate reactions and moments that can portray the heart of the scene.

“This doesn’t always work but by the end of the film I hope to be able to craft a real sense of who the main characters are and what their world view is.’


According to Little it was, in general, a wild shoot. “My producer Filipa Domingues had to kill and gut a chicken on the shoot and a baby was born on set while we were shooting the commercial for Red Bull International in KlipTown – our paramedic had to deliver the baby as the ambulance refused to come into the neighbourhood. So yes, things happen but you have to go with it. As always when shooting a documentary the challenges are constant and every day, you have to problem solve constantly and be flexible, especially if there is no money to throw at issues.’

Little explains that they shot with a small team. “That really helps, as we could easily all share a room and we ate informally at Shisa Nyama’s on the side of the road.

“Managing a small intimate team is often harder than a big crew as the issues of living in each other’s space – in one room and one vehicle – can at times start feeling like a band on tour. But the nature of what we were shooting inspired and humbled us a great deal. How can you complain about someone’s stinky socks when our main cast member shares a bed in a shack with his elderly mother?’

He notes that the biggest challenge for him as director was translating a very broad subject into an engaging film. “This involved spending a lot of time with the main cast and crafting scenes that spoke for them and hopefully creating a backbone to the film that runs deeper than dance. I come from a more narrative background and sort of fell into documentaries, so my style tends to clash with purely voyeuristic / objective documentation. This can create documentary that feels more like a movie but the process is a constant anguish as I have to carefully mould and sculpt on the fly, trusting my intuition rather than creating and “setting up’ scenarios. I do create scenes from time to time but always in the spirit of the character and his / her emotion that I am trying to portray.’


Offline editing was done in-house by Grant Birch, online and grading by Craig Parker at 744 Digital and final mix and mastering by Sound & Motion studios.

Music plays an important part in the film as they wanted to “capture the rhythms of the street’. Little explains: “The soundtrack alone is worth watching this film for. We were lucky to have Simon Kohler compose original music and sound design, as well as carefully source music that really brings these subcultures to life.

“Simon also recorded a vast sound bank of location sound to create an ambience that, combined with the music in this film, will instantly transport you into the various communities as they move and evolve. The Red Bull Studio was also a big part of this process.’

Little says that, while he wants to believe the film is for everyone, it will probably resonate with anyone who has an interest in the subcultures of the townships or is interested in dance.

“Strange as it may seem I don’t consider this a dance film but rather a film about what it means to be human, to have hopes and dreams, to struggle against all the external and internal forces that seek to crush the pure and the true.’

After Encounters, Little is looking forward to screening the documentary at DIFF. “We hope the experience will provide a few insights into how we can look to distribute the film locally as well as meet people who can help make our next film possible.

“Fokofpolisiekar was accepted at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) after it won at Encounters, so we hope to return to the Netherlands in November with this film and take it internationally from there.

“One thing we are committed to doing in partnership with Red Bull SA is to have local informal screenings in all the communities that the film was shot in. This will probably take place in the summer of 2012.’

By Linda Loubser

Screen Africa magazine – July 2012


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