“This makes Rookies an energetic, well-rounded documentary that goes against the norms of the dance world, tackles how hip-hop dancing crosses gender barriers, shows passion and warmth for its subjects, and creates a beautiful and honest snapshot of French youth today.”
Dance is a way to escape, to forget, to communicate, to be yourself. To the students of Turgot high school in central Paris it is as simple as that. In Rookies, the new documentary by seasoned documentarians Alban Teurlai and Thierry Demaizière that opened the Generation 14plus section at this year’s Berlinale, we follow eight kids with a troubled background, ranging from alcoholic parents or neighbourhood violence to intense shyness or insecurity about their bodies, as they enter a unique school program under the guidance of teachers who are at once also their surrogate parents, their coaches, their social workers and their shrinks. Dedication and drive from both teachers and students makes most of their stories a success, through ups and downs, and gives a voice to a new French generation that wants to express itself in a positive way.
In 2014 Christophe Barrand, who had just started as the new school principal at Turgot high school, took a risk. Upon the initiative of David Bérillon, a driven teacher who had gone from teaching a few kids the basics of hip-hop dancing to organizing school dance battles on a national level, Barrand lobbied to get Turgot to allow students from all over the Paris region to enroll, going against school district regulations. This allowed the school to invite kids from the suburbs with a talent for dancing to enjoy an education they would never get in the banlieus, while also giving them a chance to deal with their psychological or emotional problems caused by unstable backgrounds. Mixing them with the offspring of the well-off white middle class of central Paris that makes up the majority of Turgot’s student body, this creates a diverse group of young people that may not look the same, talk the same, or dress the same, but that functions as a team as a result of one of the core tenets of hip-hop: respect.
Teurlai and Demaizière embed themselves in the class and in a typical fly-on-the-wall manner observe the students as they interact with each other and with their teachers, focusing on eight ‘problem’ kids. This is probably Rookies‘ single flaw, because while there is already plenty of diversity within this subgroup when it comes to skin colour and faith, the fact that they are enrolled in a school that also more commonly has kids from a middle-class background suggests having one or two of those in the focus group would have really broadened this look at the diversity that the school prides itself on. That doesn’t mean that the portraits themselves aren’t interesting. Rookies follows these students not only during their dance practice sessions and competitions but puts a strong emphasis on their regular school life as well, to illustrate the freedom dancing gives them. This is a stark contrast to seeing them in class or during teacher-student evaluations, where they turn capricious, turn inward, act rebellious, or simply don’t show up. These are also the moments when the heart and dedication of the teachers shows through. It is their mission to help the kids move forward and to turn them into better future citizens, motivating them and coaching them whenever they can without talking down to them. An important role is given here to Bérillon, who is the kind of teacher you wish every kid could have. A warm and caring inspirator and motivator who can level with his students without losing their respect, but who can be blunt and strict when he really needs to be.
The way Teurlai and Demaizière film the dance scenes is at times nothing short of spectacular. They are not new to dance, having directed both the 2015 documentary feature Relève about Paris Opera Ballet choreographer Benjamin Millepied (known for his choreography in Black Swan) and the 2020 Netflix documentary series Move. It shows in the sequences here, set to music by French composer Pierre Avia (using the actual songs the kids dance to would have been a colossal rights issue). Alternating between frantic and composed based on the nature of the performances, the directors let the dancers show off their immense talent and the ease they have with their own bodies when it’s just them and the music; a stark contrast to the school scenes or the interviews where they talk about their backgrounds. This makes Rookies an energetic, well-rounded documentary that goes against the norms of the dance world, where white bodies are still the most common, tackles how hip-hop dancing crosses gender barriers, shows passion and warmth for its subjects, and creates a beautiful and honest snapshot of French youth today.