Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Alan Govenar's YOU DON'T NEED FEET TO DANCE introduces a bubbly NYC immigrant

You may not need feet to dance, but you do need a less heavily-accented voice to narrate your movie about an exceptionally energetic, positive-thinking emigrant from Guinea, West Africa, in New York City. The subject of Alan Govenar's new documentary is a fellow named Sidiki Conde, who, as a child, contracted a case of polio that left him with tiny, thin and mostly useless legs and feet. How he contends with this handicap -- in fact, turns it into something uniquely his own, as he negotiates his way around the city (of course, he lives in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment) managing to earn his living by making music and dance while teaching others with handicaps -- is the meat of this inspiring and surprising film.

The last time we wrote about filmmaker Govenar, shown at right, he was covering, rather beautifully and nostalgically, the beat generation in Paris in his documentary The Beat Hotel, using all sort of interesting film techniques to bring back Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso and their ilk in those good old Left Bank days. His new film could not seem more different, as the camera, all in color this time, remains on Sidiki and his immediate surroundings almost every minute, as this sexy, funny and utterly vital fellow acts as our tour guide and narrator of his life here in New York City.

It's as narrator that I might have wished for more, mainly in the form of English subtitles with which to decipher his words. I certainly understood many of them, but key words and phrases along the way were lost in his lilting but often fudgily imprecise pronunciations. (Maybe the eventual DVD release will provide those subtitles.) Meanwhile we have energetic visuals to sustain us.

Mr Govenar begins his film as Sidiki awakens and starts his day with a bath -- his strong, muscular torso clearly makes up for his lack of useful legs and feet -- then dressing and winding his way down those five flights and off on his way to the local Mosque. (He's Muslim and so we see him praying along with the other men; "He's an inspiration to me!" notes the Imam.)

Indeed this is a man for whom nearly everything seems both doubly strenuous and yet, given his positive attitude, somehow uplifting. A friend insists that Sidiki is not disabled because he can do all things that others can do. Yet this seems a little too Norman Vincent Peale.  He tells us of his history, and we see a few old photos, but mainly the movie concentrates on the now, as he teaches classes for the handicapped, practices his music and does some busking on the city's streets and in its parks.

Toward the end, we learn how old the man is, and it's a surprise. Given his looks and his energy level, I would have guessed ten, even twenty years younger. (His outfit also suddenly changes from red to blue, indicating, I would guess, that a new day has dawned.) In the final few minutes, when he speaks of his now dead mother, the movie at last wraps us in some deep feeling.

Early on we learn, unless I misunderstood what he was telling us, that the man's own children are dead ("I didn't have enough to give them a life"). While I think that Govenar might have probed more deeply and uncovered more layers to Sidiki, I also suspect that M. Conde prefers to keep things on the level they remain: light, inspirational and uplifting.

As the movie goes along, you'll become aware that we have not yet seen Sidiki dance. When the moment finally arrives, I have to say it is a bit of a disappointment because, as energetic as his dancing is, it also makes you realize how important to dance is the lower half of the body. I'm happy to have learned of Sidiki, and hope I'll someday see him on the street or busking in the park, so I can approach him, thank him for his life and work and put some money in his basket.

YOU DON'T NEED FEET TO DANCE, from First Run Features and lasting 88 minutes, opens this Friday, March  22, in New York City at the Quad Cinema. Though this is the only currently scheduled playdate, as with other FRF films, this one, too, should eventually be available on DVD.

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