SA university community unpacks ‘choreopoetry’ film ‘Our Bodies Back’

South Africans in the arts industry have had a tough lockdown but they remain sensitised to issues highlighted in the short film Our Bodies Back. This newly released black-and-white art movie has been described as “choreopoetry”, a blend of dance and spoken word.

Our Bodies Back, by Jonzi D, was released in August as a voice against gender-based violence (GBV) and racism.

When COVID-19 forced artists online, many decided to use their platforms to create awareness of issues unresolved to this day. And the UK’s Breakin’ Convention artistic director, playwright and dancer Jonzi D was among them.

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A still from the short art film ‘Our Bodies Back’.

Who is Jonzi D?

Breakin’ Convention is an international hip-hop theatre festival which Sadler’s Wells Theatre produces annually. In response to the pandemic, Sadler’s Wells created a digital stage which audiences can watch from home.

During the lockdown in the United Kingdom (UK), the Black Lives Matter movement started to gain traction on a global scale. It was part of a growing protest against killings which included death of George Floyd in the US.

At this time Jonzi D felt compelled to create a protest art film which he titled Our Bodies Back. In under six minutes, it addresses racism as well as violence against women globally.

“No more walking on eggshells, no more code switching, no more concern about white fragility,” said Jonzi D in an interview with Another fashion and culture magazine.

The film premiered on 19 August 2020 and is receiving traction globally.

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A still from the short art film ‘Our Bodies Back’.

The inspiration for ‘Our Bodies Back’

The film takes its name from the poem, We Want Our Bodies Back, by acclaimed US playwright and performance artist Jessica Care Moore.

HarperCollins released the volume containing the poem in March this year.

Juliana Ukiomogbe from The Mantle online magazine says it is dedicated to Sandra Bland, Ntozake Shange, Breonna Taylor and all other feminine bodies.

UCT masters graduate and WCED Dance Studies educator Bernice Gordon gives her perspective:

“What really struck me is that it captured not only the gender-based violence and Black Lives Matter issues, but also the many intolerances our society suffers,” said Gordon.

The film urges women and persons of colour (especially black people) to reclaim their bodies by loving them, forgiving them and honouring them.

UCT choreography student Athenkosi Singeni highlights how, globally, women are taught to remain silent.

“It is 2020 and we are still waiting for our bodies, while this dance piece claims these bodies.”

“It demands that these black bodies must be returned to their mothers without blood, without humiliation, without bruises, without glass or fire,” she said.

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A still from the short art film ‘Our Bodies Back’.

Plea for tolerance

Considering the film, Gordon urges South Africans to close their eyes to differences and to be more tolerant.

“Even though our differences provide these dynamic societies, cultural life and beauty that it offers, why must it be such an issue to be different?

“In actual fact we are all human and that should be the thread that holds us together,” Gordon said.

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A still from the short art film ‘Our Bodies Back’.

Poetry and dance

In the film Moore reads her poem as three dancers and choreographers perform alternate dance sections. Axelle “Ebony” Munezero, Bolegue Manuela and Nafisah Baba are all black women who perform this ode to women and blackness.

After analysing the movement styles and genres in the film, UCT theatre maker Freddy Nyezi had a comment:

“I appreciated that the director Jonzi D, being a male, was not in the piece as the dancers come from various movement backgrounds. All of that is incorporated so that it’s honest to them,” Nyezi says.

In terms of the connection between the dancers in the film, Nyezi notes that it comes off as a “relay race”. In other words, it looks like they are receiving something, building on it and then passing it on to the next person.

“The transitions feel like when all the women say, ‘all the women in me are tired’, because they are Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor!” he said.

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A still from the short art film ‘Our Bodies Back’.

What South Africans get from ‘Our Bodies Back’

Overall, the film itself is creatively smart, defiant, and powerful. The piece urges black women to demand better from men, something which all women in South Africa should do.

Singeni said she is saddened that as a young black South African woman, she is still fighting for what is rightfully hers: Her body.

“We are questioning the concept of belonging daily. Who do I belong to? Whose body is this? Who do I resemble? We are not safe. I am not safe. My body is not safe.”

Watch Our Bodies Back here.

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