The wordless opening sequence of packs a powerful punch. The camera remains an impassioned observer as it follows African immigrant Sidiki Conde going through his morning paces — getting out of bed, taking a vigorous bath, dressing himself and bounding down the steps of his NYC fifth-floor walk-up apartment. It would all be quite mundane, except for the very relevant fact that he’s doing all this without the use of his legs.
This documentary by Alan Govenar () film chronicles the backstory and current day-to-day existence of this compelling figure, who was born in 1961 in Guinea, West Africa and who suffered near-total paralysis after a bout with polio when he was just 14. We learn that he was sent to live with his grandfather in a forest village, where he learned to compensate for his disability and use his upper body strength not only to propel him around but also, as the film’s poetic title indicates, to perform traditional African dances using only his hands.
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He later moved to the country’s capital city, where he embarked on a career in the arts. He helped found an orchestra with other disabled performers, and later became a member of a dance company where he became a soloist and resident composer. His composing and arranging talents led to collaborations with such notable African musicians as Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keita and Baaba Maal.
He moved to the United States in 1998, where he founded the Tokounou All-Abilities Dance and Music Ensemble. Now he works as both a performer and teacher, specializing in working with people with disabilities and serving as the artist-in-residence at a Bronx public school for children with multiple disabilities.
This would all be moving enough, but the film also benefits greatly from Conde’s endlessly charismatic personality, displayed in scenes in which he interacts with friends, family members, colleagues and his young students. The film follows him around as he engages in such activities as busking on the city streets and rehearsing with his musical group, which gave a well-received 2009 show at NYC’s Symphony Space.
The film suffers at times from repetitiveness and aimless pacing, suggesting that it might have been more effective as a short rather than being stretched out to feature length. And the director’s unobtrusive fly-on-the-wall approach is more evocative than informative, resulting in a sometimes frustrating sketchiness. But such quibbles fade away when presented with its subject’s indomitable spirit and sheer infectious joyousness.