LIFF 2020 Highlights: Protest! & Zombies

Programme: Leeds International Screendance Competition

Director: Sophie Le Hire (Protest!), Baloji (Zombies)

Length: 7 minutes, 15 minutes

Country: Senegal, Democratic Republic of the Congo

For the concluding chapter of my coverage of this year’s Leeds Short Film Awards, I have delved into the inventive, exhilarating and sometimes downright bizarre world of dance on screen. Leeds International Screendance Competition is one of the shortest programmes on offer at Leeds International Festival 2020, but still manages to pack in 10 individual shorts. Every one is interesting and admirable in its own way, but there are a few that stand out.

Among them are two films that achieve the best amalgamation of dance and cinematic storytelling on the screen. Some films – like the gripping, moving About Face from director Yoram Savion – are impressive works, but the inclusion of dance within them does not feel as urgent and necessary as possible. The dancing in About Face is impressive and far from redundant, helping to convey the emotional nature of the piece, but its narrative and thematic material does not feel inherently linked or fully embedded in dance. Some other works are enjoyable, sometimes gorgeous, pieces of music and dance on screen, but lack the narrative and/or thematic drive I was looking for. 

This is where Sophie Le Hire’s Protest! and Zombies, directed by Belgian rapper Baloji, come in. The two shorts are united by an inclusion of dance that feels fully embedded in the filmmaking, and choreography that reflects the journeys of the characters on screen. The former, set on the streets of Dakar, is an examination of the hardships facing street workers there. Observing them with her camera, Le Hire conveys a sense of dissatisfaction and unrest amongst their energy and enthusiasm. This slowly builds through the film’s very short running time, into an atmosphere of real tension.

What is then brilliant about Protest! is that this tension is released in a near-explosion of movement. The film’s tension-building is suggestive of unrest and, yes, protest which could be actualised in some sort of violent confrontation. Instead we get a battle through dance, multiple figures moving to the music either facing each other or, face-hidden, up against a wall. It is a short and slight work we have from Le Hire, but it is well worth a mention within the Screendance selection for its use of dance as a storytelling medium. The defiance and joy that it conveys are the perfect match for the idea of protest, and as such flourish in this context.

Baloji, meanwhile, uses dance to tell his story in a more obvious but equally engaging way. Zombies, its title referring to the hordes of people continually walking the streets in a daze, glued to their phones, is a comment on the social media that has seeped into every facet of our lives. More than that, though, it is about resisting the norm, fighting routine and preventing yourself from becoming one of the zombies. There’s also commentary on Black bodies, some kind of despot, a merman and someone dressed in an outfit made entirely of condoms. Zombies is full of striking images and thought-provoking moments. All of this then flows through the music (mostly written by Baloji) and dance that propels the film.

This is a fun short to watch, with the dancing proving both impressively innovative in its choreography and also an entertaining spectacle. Take one futuristic nightclub scene, for example. In it, we see a semi-dystopian vision of club-goers constantly taking selfies or experiencing the party through a virtual reality headset. They dance around, using selfie sticks and the like as props in a way that is genuinely joyful to watch, yet also highlights the sheer absurdity of the situation. It is that spirit which runs all through Zombies, which has the medium of dance inherently within in its idea. Not only does dancing convey the tone and ideas Baloji wants, but it is an act which thrives on individuality and joy. If we keep dancing, Baloji argues, we might just avoid becoming zombies.

Leeds International Screendance Competition is available to stream on the Leeds Film Player until 30th November.

Andrew Young