Martha and Nikki tear it up

Diane De Beer

Director Tora Mkandawire Mårtens first saw a YouTube video of young Martha Nabwire dancing and was so captivated that she contacted her about making a documentary.

Nabwire introduced her to her dancing partner, Niki Tsappos, and after lengthy discussions, they embarked on a five-year journey.

It sounds like a long time, but when you see the documentary Martha and Niki about these young African-born lasses who make it to the top in the male-dominated, competitive world of street dancing by winning a competition, Juste Debout, you will understand it is more than a film about two dancers.

These two young women initially take to Sweden in completely different ways and, because their personalities are so different, their journeys are not as straightforward as we expect when first meeting them. The film opens with the competition which they win, making history.

It wasn’t an easy process, says Mkandawire Mårtens, who has lived in Pretoria for the past four years with her Malawian husband. It explains the director’s empathy for people who move between countries and continents, with the dilemma of feeling foreign sometimes in both.

Her own journey to documentary director was a meandering one, but she started in the arts as an actor while still at school. She quickly understood that it was all about storytelling for her but she didn’t want to do it on stage or in front of the cameras.

“I’m much more a backstage person,” she explains.

That’s when she started to take pictures, but she didn’t enrol at film school because she thought she wouldn’t be accepted. Instead she trained as a photographer and began doing film projects.

When you experience Martha and Niki, which we as South Africans should because these young women are such unusual role models in a milieu where there are so few, you will understand the director’s unique talents. To get into their hearts and minds takes a special skill, especially someone as private as Nabwire, although when she speaks she truly bares her soul.

By the time the two women have their final “confrontation”, Mkandawire Mårtens explains, they were a very small team and that allowed them to be privy to these intensely personal moments.

But the director is also someone who likes people not to share all their secrets, to hold something back. “You don’t want to share everything,” she says and she also appreciates that Nabwire, a strong if often silent person, can say “no” to requests. It is her mindfulness that appeals to Mkandawire Mårtens. Not that she doesn’t approve of the much more exuberant Tsappos, someone who wears her heart on her sleeve, but it is the differences between the two women and how they approach the world that makes the film so engaging.

This “coming of age” documentary succeeds in breaking down stereotypes and telling stories from different perspectives.

Durban Film Festival: Saturday at 6.30pm (Playhouse) and Thursday (June 23) at 20.30pm (Musgrave 5).

From June 21 to 25, AfriDocs on Channel ED (190 DStv) will screen three top films from DIFF daily with a day of repeats on June 26 and a daily live broadcast from the festival in Durban from 4pm that will include interviews with top film-makers and industry experts. Tune into Channel ED from 4.55pm to catch three feature-length documentaries a day.. Martha & Niki will first be screened on June 24.

Joburg’s Bioscope premiere on July 1 at 7.30pm (open to anybody). See