"Martha & Niki" (2016) Art House Movie Day Review
This review is for one of three films I watched in one day at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I mention this only because of how much I've fallen in love with the venue and was more than happy to literally spend six hours of my day going in and out of screenings. And this is the first film...
It's interesting when a story decides to start with victory.
I didn't read up much on Martha & Niki before seeing it, but I was surprised that every log-line/synopsis I read mentioned that the hip hop dancing duo at the documentary's center, Martha Nabwire and Niki Tsaposs, were the first women to win in the Hip Hop New Style category at Juste Debout in Paris, France. I figured from reading the log-line that maybe the film was going to build up to that point, using the time build up Martha and Niki's strategies for dance battles, dive into the inside politics of the judges, and other information like that.
Director Tora Mårtens clearly had other plans though. About a third of the way through Martha & Niki, the titular duo win Juste Debout, leaving the audience with a simple question:
Where do you go after victory?
As it turns out, the audience isn't the only one that has to answer that question. Martha and Niki themselves are faced with the fame that comes with victory, along with its consequences. That's not to say that Martha & Niki is some nasty fable about the dangers of fame, Martha & Niki is far too heartfelt to be so cruel. As the documentary continues, we learn more about each woman's origins, how both of them ended up in Sweden, how they met each other, and so much more.
It's an admittedly odd choice to leave all of this information for the rest of the film. The first third almost leaves you starved for information and context, which I'd normally mark against a documentary like this. Except that the filmmakers involved took a gamble and realized that the opening dance battles are visually compelling and intense enough to work on their own. It's a mostly successful gamble, but it leaves the rest of the documentary to move at a slower pace.
And again, that's not a bad thing. The deeper Martha & Niki goes, the better it gets. For as epic as the early dance battles at Juste Debout are, the film's most memorable dancing happens in a much smaller venue that managed to nearly get tears out of me. It turns out that these two women have a lot to say about dealing with men in dance competitions, dealing with race back in Sweden, and more. None of these conversations feel forced either, they're very real conversations born out of the situations they enter and exit.
Ultimately, Martha & Niki is a large spectacle that laser focuses into something far more intimate and memorable. It's a clever structure that rewards patient viewing. The documentary is currently available for streaming and purchase on Vimeo if you'd like to see it for yourself.