q & a with planet b-boy director benson lee

The fantastic documentary Planet B-Boy is now playing in select theaters. It's a great film, a real crowd-pleaser, telling the story of international B-boy crews competing for the coveted title of champion at the Battle of Year. I can't recommend it enough. Read my review here. To learn more about the film, go here.

I recently got to chat with director Benson Lee about making the film, examining the culture and politics of b-boys, and hanging onto passion for your art. He had some pretty cool things to say. Check it:

Hey man, what's up?

Not much. Just getting ready for tonight's big premiere.

Were you in San Francisco over the weekend for the festival?

Yeah, man. Just got in from San Francisco this morning.

How did the screening of Planet B-Boy go over there?

Bananas, man. It was sold out. It was one of the first films to be sold out at the festival way in advance. I heard that people were trying to get tickets on Craigslist. And the reception was phenomenal, because we had lots of b-boys in the audience, and of course we had lots of Asians. So you couldn't have asked for a better screening. We actually had two screenings. One was for the public, and the other one was actually a special screening for three hundred high school students.

That's awesome.

Yeah, and that was amazing. They had six different high schools come to the festival to check out the film. You've got a lot progressive teachers these days, man—taking the kids to see hip hop documentaries on a Monday. So yeah, people are definitely warming up to hip hop, and realizing that there's a very serious, meaningful culture there. That makes me happy.

Where did the idea for Planet B-Boy come from? Did you start off wanting to make a doc on b-boying in general? Or did you specfically set out to do a documentary on Battle of the Year?

I definitely wanted to do something on B-boying in general. It's just an amazing urban dance. The original hip hop dance that everybody remembers but nobody knows that still exists. Of course, I didn't want to do a doc that was about the entire culture or history, because that actually had been done before in other documentaries. I just wanted to focus on one particular angle, which happened to be through the guidelines of this competition. We'd start out with this competition and the people who were involved in it, who were eventually going to meet and compete. So, that was my angle.

I feel like the film really has the eye of someone who's very familiar with b-boying and the culture. Do you have a background in breakdancing at all?

Well, it's funny, because I have a background in breakdancing, but not b-boying. And what I mean by that is, back in the eighties, I was one of those kids who saw those movies like Flashdance or Beat Street, and was completely mesmerized and compelled to take out a piece of cardboard and do my thing. You know? But I totally missed out on what actual "b-boying" was. It's a dance form that has its own foundation, that originated in the Bronx, and I didn't know anything about that. Because I wasn't in that community, and I didn't have access to that information. Nor did millions of kids around the world, for that matter, who saw it. But then the people who got really got into it eventually discovered that, yes, there really is a method to the madness, there is some rhyme to the reason, and this was an actual dance form. So, I got into the trend, and the trend was called breakdancing. But the real dance is called B-boying. So, just to clarify, no real b-boy or b-girl would use the term "breakdancing." They call it b-boying, b-girling, or breaking. And even though it's just a term, it's very important. In fact, it's a little politically incorrect, because it's kind of like calling an Inuit person an "Eskimo." It's just a label that was created by somebody else, but not the culture itself.

Wow. I feel like I just got schooled.

Well, you know what? It's important because a lot of people don't realize... I had actually done some interviews where people just said to me, like... I'd clarify some things, and they'd still use the terms "pop" and "lock"... You've heard that before, right? A lot of people think that's part of b-boying or breaking, but it's not. Popping and locking is actually like a whole other form of dancing that came from Northern California, even before hip hop came around. So poppers and lockers hate when people use that term in association with b-boying. And they have their own culture, their own dance... it's almost like saying that a ballerina has great jazz moves. It's a totally different dance form.

Really, the reason why breakdancing died in the eighties is that people completely exploited the whole culture, and never represented what I truly was. So this time around, we're hoping that people will want to know a little bit more. This documentary serves almost as that next step to say, look, this has its own history. It's part of the hip hop diaspora. It is one of the elements of hip hop. It played a major role in the eighties, but we really want to throw that away. It's about here and now and the future. It is an entire dance form, and the fact that it's survived this long is a testament to the fact that it is. And on top of that, there's so many people who practice it around the world. So what turns me on the most is when people actually say about the film, wow, I had no idea this was around. I had no idea about the effort these kids put into it. I had no ideas so many countries were involved. I had no idea hip hop had this side to it. That's truly our mission.

Going into shooting the film, what are some of the themes and ideas you wanted to explore? What are some of the themes you discovered that emerged during the course of making the film?

That's a really good question. When making a documenary, you don't really know what lies ahead. You have these general ideas. And for me, one thing that heavily impacted me was when Korea first entered the Battle of the Year in 2001. When new countries enter the Battle of the Year, they usually end up last or on the bottom of the rankings, because they don't have the experience. But Korea came in 2001, out of nowhere, and came in second. And everybody was like, what the hell, who are these Koreans, and where do they come from? When did they learn all this shit? They just brought this whole other power element to the game. And so for me, I was really fascinated by that. Because I mean, I am Korean American, but at the same time, I'm like, "What the hell?" too. Where do they come from... and why? And so I went to Korea and I met this Korean hip hop promoter Charlie Shin, from New York—you saw him in the film. He's one of the guys who has singlehandedly created a whole scene.

But what was really intriguing was that these guys got really d'ed for a lot of social and political reasons. Social because when hip hop first entered Korea, people were just like, "What the hell is this?" Korean society just didn't even know how to digest it. But the kids liked it right away, and they embraced it. They liked it because hip hop was originally created for the youth in the Bronx where they were pretty much ignored and dismissed, because A) they were poor, and B) they weren't well-educated, and C) they were disenfranchised, whatever. This was the voice of those people. Hip hop. And when it went to Korea, it spoke to the same people. People who weren't academically inclined, or socially well-off. These people embraced it, and it exploded. They found a way to express their angst, and express themselves. And when they did that, at that time, people were like, look, you're not walking that line you're supposed to walk, which is to go to a good school, get a good job... you guys are fucking losers. So you take that angst, and that label, and then you add it with the fact that you have to go to the army when you're 21... you're going to have some motherfuckin' explosive dancing. That's what I realized happened in Korea. And that's what I've learned though this film.

It's like, wow, taking something like street dance as profoundly impacted by environment, culture, politics, personal issues—all of that—and seeing that being transmitted and translated through the dance, to me, is beautiful. It's really touching and meaningful. You know, a lot of people will just see [b-boys] and see a bunch of running around on the street cleaning the floor. But I want them to see these people as people, and say, oh wow, there's something going on there. It's more than just these kids working here for you to give them a quarter or something. There's absolutely a deeper message that's coming out from that person's life through the dance. Ralizing all this, and being able to articulate it, that was amazing for me.

While the film definitely has a true appreciation for the international artistry of b-boying, a competition like this pitting nation against nation also sets up all sorts of drama around politics and national pride. How much would you say that aspect played into your framing of the Battle of the Year in the film? Especially between countries that have some serious negative history, i.e. Japan and South Korea?

You do see that politics does come out in dancing, especially between Japan and Korea. I mean, more so in Korea than Japan. The Koreans are much more nationalistic. The Japanese definitely feel it and understand it, but because of the fact that their history doesn't teach it to them, they don't really understand how deep this is. But at the same time, what's beautiful about hip hop is that you get to just channel it. You get to take it out on the dance floor, and you get to walk away and be like, look, it's all good. That's amazing, you know? Hip hop, through the context of dance, serves that role. You can take it out, and take, take, take, from it, and use it as a source of inspiration, and something to push and motivate you, or whatever. And you really take it out on the dance floor.

Because afterwards, they don't give a shit. Honestly, I always thought that it would be more antagonistic between them, but it's not. Honestly. They know what happened. But it's really like, they're young guys, they weren't directly affected, their parents might've been... but they're ready to move on. They're read to say, look, I don't care about that. It's between us as B-boys at the end of the day. It's beautiful in the respect. I mean, like in our film, who would've known that a racist French mother, through hip hop would learn that you can't judge people? And who would've known that B-boy Joe and his father would find some sort of platform where they could see eye-to-eye and find common ground? If it wasn't for this dance, I don't know if they would really connect that way.

To me, a huge part of the human narrative that comes across in the film are the relationships between two of the B-boys and their respective parents, particularly because it involves their struggle to gain acceptance and understanding from their families about their passion for B-boying. I think a lot of viewers, B-boys or otherwise, can relate to that dynamic in their own ways. Was that something that spoke to you as an artist?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Because children, regardless of where you're from, universally seek the approval of their parents. I mean, of course, that spoke to me because I didn't have it easy with my parents in terms of wanting to be a filmmaker. I mean, they were supportive... but, you know, that was really hard to explain. When you have parents who equate success with financial contexts, it's hard. Because in that sense, you're not successful at all, if you're an independent filmmaker, or a dancer, or a writer. I don't know, man. It's hard to explain to parents who've never been creative or never followed that path that I'm willing this risk. Well, it's not even a risk. It's like I have to do this. This is what I love. And it's hard for a lot of parents to understand that. I mean, I have friends who have parents who are writers, or artists, and they are still really hard on their kids. Because maybe it didn't work out for them, and they feel like it's not going to work out for their kids.

It's interesting. You know, like I had that screening the other day in San Francisco for the high school students, and told them, look, I made this for your parents. I want them to understand. Understand that hip hop is good for you, that expressing yourself is good for you. And there's something amazingly healthy about that, about a creative community of people, together. So yeah, that was very important to me.

Who are some of your creative influences?

First person that comes to mind is Gordon Parks. He's one of the first African American photographers who became a staff photographer for Life magazine. Spike Lee was huge for me. Ang Lee is huge. Kurosawa. All the usual suspects like Bergman, Fellini, Ozu. They had a profound impact on my life in terms of how they shaped my paradigm of cinema and the role of cinema.

What's next for you?

The feature adaptation of Planet B-Boy.

Oh really? I can totally see that.

Oh yeah. We're working with some pretty big producers right now. People are ready for something different than the usual urban dance fare about the ballerina-meeting-the-street-dancer bullshit. And then, I'm also working on other projects. One is called Seoul Searching, an old feature script of mine that's based on when I went to Korea on this government school program n 1986, and I met all these Korean guys from France, and Brazil, Germany. We were all roommates. It's a teen comedy coming-of-age film that's really close to me.

What makes you angry?

You know, that's a real good question. What makes me angry is people who are subconsciously racist, and not even aware of it. Basically, I'm a really proud angry Asian man, which is a lot like being an angry African American. The commonality being aspects of white culture, where people have certain subconscious impressions of minorities. It's not that I go out of my way to break the mold of being an Asian, but I go out of my way to very passionate and always stick to what I really believe in. That's the one thing that's really helped me to endure a lot of suffering in order to yield really good results. And so when you deal with people out there, you really have to stick to your guns, and you really have to believe in yourself and your ideas. And you've got to protect them. But it's not easy, and that's what ultimately makes me very angry... You've got to be angry to protect what's yours, man.

Thanks, Benson.

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