Benson Lee is the director of Planet B-Boy, which explores the resurgence of break-dancing and goes inside the underground hip hop dance scene around the world, as the best teams prepare for the "The Battle of the Year" -- an annual "World Cup" of b-boying.
Tribeca Film Festival: Is there a difference between breakdancing and b-boying?
Lee: The main difference between breakdancing and b-boying is the title, but it's also part of the history. B-boying started off as one of the crucial elements in hip-hop culture when it first started in the Bronx in the late 70's. And when the media got hold of it in the 1980's, they gave it the name breakdancing. And so ever since then it stuck, especially for the masses.
But b-boys, real b-boys, don't like to be called breakdancers. The title is something that was fabricated by the media.
Why did you choose to make this film?
I actually started in features; I directed a film called Miss Monday, which I shot in the UK that premiered in Sundance a while back. And I've always wanted to do a documentary, but I knew that if I got involved in documentaries it would be a massive labor of love and I would suffer greatly. I decided that if I was to do that that I would do something that I really love.
Back in the day in the 80's when breakdancing was a huge fad, I was in high school and I was one of the million kids around the nation that really got into the dance. I never became a true b-boy, but I fell in love with the dance form.
And then when I went to college I got into filmmaking, and pretty much forgot about the dance form until the late 90's when I was online and I learned that there was breakdancers still around, but they were actually called b-boys. They were all around the world and there was this event called the Battle of the Year, which is an annual event that started in 1990, which sort of serves as the World Cup of breakdancing, if you will.
I was really amazed by the fact that this dance fad that was popular in the 80's had actually come back, had resurged, and was now all around the world. It came back, and it excelled in its artistry and its acrobatics, and it's really one of the most phenomenal dance forms that you can see.
What do you think makes b-boying special?
B-boying is a really amazing dance form. It's not a conventional dance. Although b-boying has its own foundation like any other dance, what makes it very special is that it actually borrows from many other dance forms, including martial arts, and gymnastics. The most important thing about it is that it encourages individuality.
They have this thing called 'biting,' which is when you copy other people's moves, which is completely looked down upon because individually you have to bring your own style, you have to bring your own flavor to the dance. And on top of that it's one of the few dance forms that thrives on competition.
A lot of people are aware that b-boying has this battle element, where you have two crews and they compete against each other, and they use dance moves to kind of fight each other. That's actually what a lot of the dancers are addicted to, the whole battle element of b-boying.
What was the biggest obstacle?
We didn't get a lot of support, and this is universally the same for a lot of documentaries. We had to do it on a really barebones budget.
But our goal was to go around the world, and get an insight into these b-boys' lives and culture, and see how that plays a role in the dance form. Up until they get to this World Cup of b-boying (and my crew is really small-it was just myself, my DP, and my soundman), we were dropped off in countries in which we didn't speak the language.
But we were fortunate. We covered some universal issues with people that I think anyone can relate to. These kids are like your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters, your friends, and they have the same problems even more, because they're dancers.
What's your favorite part of the process?
Filmmaking, especially documentary filmmaking, is like having a passport into people's lives. We had people tell us things that were just mind-blowing, really personal. And in a weird way it was kind of therapeutic for some of these people.
It's a privilege and it's an honor, but it's also a serious obligation because you know you are representing this person and their culture and you want to make sure you do it right.
What did it mean to have your film accepted into Tribeca?
A lot of filmmakers think that the film festivals in Utah or in Texas are the festivals to be at. But for me, Tribeca is. I consider it an honor to be in this festival because of what it was built on and the philosophy behind the festival, which is to really raise cultural awareness in areas that are affected by 9/11.
That mission alone has really helped the festival to focus more on the cultural, creative aspect of content and of filmmaking. I consider Tribeca one of the top film festivals in the United States, if not the world right now.
It takes advantage of what New York has to offer in ways that other remote festivals cannot. And because this film is about a dance form that originated in New York, it only makes sense that we start in Tribeca.
I'm really about promoting cultural understanding through film. Having this outdoor screening the first weekend of Tribeca, outside the World Trade Center, is such a deep honor for me, and a pleasure. I'm going to dedicate that screening to all the lives that were lost during 9/11, and it's going to be a celebration of life, and that's what I feel my film is about in way, too. It's a celebration of people's lives, and their love for their passion.
If you were stranded on a desert island and you could only bring three films...
Okay, if I was stranded on a desert island and I could only bring three films, one would be Network. The other would be Midnight Cowboy. And Planet B-Boy.
Do you have a mantra? Words you live by?
After I made this film, there are three words that I learned which are sort of my mantra right now, which is what hip-hop was founded on originally, which are peace, love, and unity. And I know that sounds sort of like a cliché, but at the end of the day in the conditions and climates that we live in right now it's not a bad thing to live by, or stand for, or aspire for.
What is your best-kept secret in New York?
I think the best kept secret in New York is actually New Yorkers themselves. They always say it's the greatest city in the world, but it's not because of what you can get here, but it's the energy of the people and you know compared to a lot of other cities in America I think we really try to keep it real here.
Photos from www.planetbboy.com