Martha and Niki

NOTHING prepares you for the exquisitely made Martha and Niki. From the start it is seemingly about two young Swedish hip hop dancers, Martha Nabwire and Niki Tsappos who, in 2010, made history as the first women to win the finals of the prestigious street dance competition, Juste Debout.

This sets them on a whirlwind path of dancing in all parts of the world as they find themselves pretty much the only women on many of these competitive dance floors as their story unfolds while travelling between Stockholm, Paris, Havana and concluding in Joburg.

But that’s not what this story really tries to unravel. At the heart of this documentary are the two young women who have much in common, but are slowly torn apart because of their divergent dreams. It also speaks directly to the issue of exile, whether by choice or imposed. And one even sees a further story in the future lives of these young stars.

Both women are originally from Africa, yet the one was adopted by a Swedish family as a baby and has adapted to her life in this European world, while the other only arrived there at the age of 14. From Uganda, she does not feel at ease in this new world.

These are two contemporary, classy women who are flying to the top of what they hope to achieve, they know how to articulate their feelings even when they do it very differently and they shed light on two individuals who might be stereotyped quite differently if we only saw the surface of their worlds.

Swedish-born Tora Mårtens, who has won a few prizes and now resides in Pretoria, should probably be the one praised for her vision and the way she managed to tell this story. She had to work hard to encourage the girls to allow her in. She first spotted the seeds of a story when she saw Martha on a YouTube clip, dancing. “I was shocked by the artistic way she interpreted hip hop,” says Mårtens, which prompted her to contact the young dancer and got the documentary started. It took five years to make, in which time she gained her subjects’ trust as she told their story.

But it’s a multi-layered story that unfolds.

The dancing and what these two creative artists manage to achieve is astonishing to watch. An older, white woman is probably not seen as the target audience, yet I was completely infatuated with everything in this documentary – the dancing included.

As we follow them dancing around the world, it becomes clear how differently these two individuals see their future. It’s a deeply moving story with the entertainment value, the extraordinary dancing. But it is really what happens to these two women as they rise in this dance world that grips and holds the imagination.