Twerking was inducted into the Oxford Dictionary in 2013 as such: A dance or dance move involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance. But that definition lacks so much depth and insight. The pop cultural climate has been a whirlwind of new trends and opinions since Miley Cyrus first took to the VMA stage in 2013, when jaws dropped as she began infamously twerking on national television. Her performance was immediately challenged by black women and defended by white feminists, according to Tressie McMillan Cottom in Slate, spurring a wave of new thoughts—on feminism and cultural appropriation—that continue to be discussed today. But twerking isn’t new. “Variants of the dance exist in most places where there’s a high concentration of people of African descent. Its current iteration is commonly associated with the New Orleans bounce scene,” reported Christiana Mbakwe in xoJane. But somehow, it took Miley Cyrus’s co-opting of the dance move for the world to take notice.
This begs many questions, some we’ve yet to answer with confidence and authority: Where do we draw the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation? Who’s allowed to twerk and who isn’t? These types of questions are what probed the curiosity of LA-based, Italian-born filmmaker, Diana Manfredi aka Spaghetto. As a European woman living in the States, she was fascinated by the worldwide influence twerking has had, and how one dance has affected global opinions. As an outsider looking in, her aim was to quietly observe and document, straying from harsh criticisms or judgments. She let her subjects and interviewees do most of the talking, capturing an array of opinions. Spaghetto herself admits that she doesn’t have all the answers, even after travelling the world and working on the documentary for the past two years. But it’s clear she’s been devoted to uncovering more information about this international phenomenon: “I found that there were a lot of things to say—about the history, but also about everything else and how people feel about it and how the other topics link up, like feminism, how it’s received online, the culture. It’s not just about dancing.”
Before its world premiere this Friday at the Wiltern in Los Angeles, we caught up with Spaghetto for the interview below. Here’s how Twerkumentary came to be, what she hopes her audience takes away from it, and how her DIY process reflects her unique filmmaking style.
KAT THOMPSON: What originally piqued your interest on doing a documentary on twerking? Was there a moment where you were like—“Wait, this could be really interesting”?
SPAGHETTO: I’m from Europe, and I realized that nobody there really knew about the origins of twerking. Like after Miley Cyrus’s performance and the word [getting] added to the Oxford Dictionary, everyone started twerking there but nobody really knew anything about it. And that’s in the U.S. as well. A lot of people just saw it on T.V. but no one really knew. I don’t know—I was curious and I decided to make a documentary about it.
How long have you been working on it?
It took two years—that’s when I started [formulating] the idea and interviewing the first people. It’s a long process... A lot of them were really happy about it, but a lot of people didn’t want to talk about twerking. I think a lot of people feel embarrassed about twerking. It was hard to get everyone on camera; a lot of the people I wanted to interview I couldn’t interview. But yeah, it took a long. I [also] edited it and everything, and all the traveling, and I did the animation—so that part takes forever.
Actually, that relates one question I had. I noticed you did different mediums, like film and animation. What was the creative decision behind that?
Yeah! It’s my style. I always work with animation in music videos I direct. I went to art school so I used to draw and paint a lot. When I started making videos, I kind of stopped doing it and I always kind of missed it—the part where you draw and get to use a lot of colors. So then I started doing animations and I found it was the perfect mix between my artistic side and my filmmaking side... And also, this video is self-produced so I didn’t have a budget to do any licensing. I couldn’t use any famous music videos or anything so I needed animation because that’s the way I’m going to show people parts that I [otherwise] couldn’t show.
Photos by Gianfilppo De Rossi
Because it’s a documentary, there’s so much information in it and you’ve definitely captured a range of opinions in this. I know at the end of the documentary you say, “I don’t feel like I have an answer about twerking, but it’s fun and it’s something to do.” But now that to documentary is finished and you’ve had time to marinate on this, do you have an opinion about what twerking means or how it affects the world culturally?
In the documentary, I wanted to show the different ideas [people had], especially for women. It can be empowering but it can also be the total opposite. I understand both ideas and I understand both sides. During the whole process, it was [my intention to] keep reaching. Like sometimes I’d be like, “Oh my God, twerking! This is the new wave of feminism, yay!” and other times I’d be like, “Dude, this is like... very bad.” Like, it’d just be a bunch of guys trying to take advantage of girls or girls not understanding the limit or respecting themselves enough. It’s a crazy line between the two things.
For me, at the end—after seeing all the different ways to twerk in different places with the different attitudes—I really think it [boils down] to the motive that you have and how you do it and how you present yourself. Like if you put meaning behind it or you just do it for fun, if you do it to impress someone or to get some type of attention or not. I also hope that when guys see the documentary they will understand that a lot of times they’re self-centered. They think that everything is for them. And, you know, we do things because we like to do certain things. Not everything in the world revolves around them. It’s crazy to me that every time they voice an opinion about women, they are 100% sure that what we do is for them—to impress them, to look good for them, to be sexual for them. It’s like, no! We do things for ourselves because we love it and we feel good doing it!
I know! When I watched your documentary, I know that I rolled my eyes at some of the parts where men were like, “Oh, if I see a woman twerking, that’s not the type of woman I want to bring home to my mom.” Like, what? No one’s trying to go home to your mom right now. But what I appreciated is that you showcased a range of opinions. Did you want your documentary to be accessible to everyone, or allow all opinions a chance to speak, even if they didn’t match your own?
I wanted to show all the different ways things can be. Also, I hope people watching themselves from the outside will be able to put everything else in perspective. I mean, it’s complex… I just hope that these guys that go to parties and try to touch girls or take photos and videos in a negative way—I hope watching the documentary will make them be like, “Oh shit, I never realized that I was very annoying and disrespectful.”
And also, sometimes girls are like, “I love my body, I can do whatever I want! I’m a feminist!” [But to me] not everything that you have the courage to do means that you’re a feminist or gives the idea that you’re empowering yourself... I don’t know—it’s complex. I don’t have the answer, but look: it’s freedom of expression and it makes a lot of girls feel great.
Photo by Sha Ribeiro
I think there’s definitely a discrepancy with new wave feminism and feminism becoming very personal to the body. A lot of people think that feminism is only about showing your nipples or twerking, but that, to me, isn’t just what feminism encompasses. I think that definitely gets misconstrued. But anyway, I know you’re releasing the documentary now after two years. Do you think the cultural climate is the same? How do you think it’s going to be received? I know that two or three years ago, when Miley Cyrus started twerking, everyone was losing their minds but I feel like it’s so normalized now.
I think at the beginning, a lot of people didn’t know what it was and everyone wanted to have their own opinion about it without really knowing. And now it’s way more affected because after that you see it in music videos and on TV and everyone in the world can see it. In Europe, they now have twerk classes at the gym. So, I think it’s way more affected now. There’s still some debates—I think it enriches other subjects. Like, for a while, people were talking about cultural appropriation, then feminism. It’s like all these other subjects are [highlighted] more than the sexuality of the dance... But for me, it was really interesting. I found that there were a lot of things to say—about the history but also about everything else and how people feel about it and how the other topics link up; like feminism, how it’s received online, the culture. It’s not just about dancing.
There are some intersectional identities that are highlighted in this documentary and the ways we engage in twerking. Just touching upon cultural appropriation and feminism—were there times where you as a filmmaker felt uncomfortable not only being a woman, but also being a white, European woman when making this documentary?
I think specifically for this documentary, it’s good that I’m not from [the U.S.] because it makes it more interesting. I have a different point of view not being from here and investigating an American phenomenon from the outside. And no, not really. I never really think about being different… I don’t do things and go like, “Oh shit, I’m the only girl doing it” or “Oh shit, I’m the only white person here.” I just do what I like… I never felt uncomfortable because of where I’m from. I think everyone that was in the film was happy and understood what I was trying to do.
I noticed you got to travel all over the world to get an insight on twerking as a global phenomenon. It was cool to see the different ways that people were interpreting this dance style. Something I was curious about was why you didn’t actually travel anywhere in Africa where there’s a lot more insight on dancing in African diaspora and where twerking originated?
I could’ve gone where it started and where it’s their culture, but somehow it was more interesting for the idea I was going for to go where it’s not part of the culture and where they just started twerking cause they saw it online. That was the choice. Ideally, if I had the budget, I would’ve gone everywhere in the world. But I had to make a choice and I thought it was interesting to show how twerking has affected people who didn’t grow up booty-shaking and didn’t know what it was and had never done it before. I thought it was more of a reflection of our times and pop culture.
I had a lot of people talking about Africa and I interviewed some people from Africa. But then, at the end, I focused on the rest of the subjects because in the interviews some people don’t even understand or see the connection of twerking with their traditional dance. They see twerking as an American thing so they start twerking because they see it in music videos from the U.S. So, I don’t know, I thought it was a whole different chapter to explore but unfortunately I couldn’t… I feel like I can make a whole new documentary with what I didn’t include.
Your process feels very DIY. I know sometimes in the documentary you’d be holding the camera yourself and you wouldn’t have a tripod—you would just be talking to your subject like that. Is this an intentional way to make your films more personal or what’s your process technically?
I hate tripods. I try not to use them—I just hold the camera forever. Also, I don’t like the structure of the Q&As when, you know, the person is not in the center and they’re looking diagonal. It’s the same in every single documentary and I don’t like that. So I was really just talking to them and asking questions and I was just looking at them and they were just looking at me and I’d hold the camera on my face. So it was like they were talking to me and looking at the camera at the same time… I wanted it to be more like a conversation. Also the dancing at parties, people were really bumping into me and dancing on me while I was trying to shoot and beer spilt on my camera. That’s like the style—it’s very underground. I don’t think it would match really well with tripod shots. It’s just more my style.
Spaghetto. Photo by Gianfilppo De Rossi
You had some really cool interview subjects—what was it like working with people like E-40 and Kreayshawn and Cheeky Blakk?
It was awesome! E-40, when I interviewed him, he was shooting a movie. I went to Oakland and I went to his movie set, and he said, “Oh, the first person who said twerk in a song was George Clinton in the 70s and I was like, “Wow! Really?!” And then after that I interviewed George Clinton. Sometimes you hear something or someone says something and it’s more important than a hundred articles. So it was very cool to interview him and George Clinton was really cool too. And Kreayshawn—we are friends. She was one of the first people I asked if she wanted to be in the film… I wanted to hear her point of view also on twerking in music videos because I know we are both directors and we get asked all the time as a director [about making] music videos for guys that have a lot of girls twerking or ass naked and stuff.
What did you want your audience to take away from your documentary?
I don’t know! Girls that were against it or girls that twerk all the time, if they watch it they understand more different ways that you can do it and the different ways that you can portray yourself. I think it’s really cool if they see it from the outside and be like, “Oh! I was talking shit about this but it’s actually really cool because of all these reasons” or “Oh, I never realized that maybe being drunk on stage and letting a bunch of guys slap my ass doesn’t really send the message that I am proud of myself.” And then I hope guys that watch it will be able to understand more about why we do what we do and not everything we do revolves around wanting attention from them.
Twerkumentary’s world premiere will be at the Wiltern on June 10th at 8pm. Purchase tickets at wiltern.com. Following the screening, there will be an after party with performances by Dem Ham Boyz (Ham on Everything), Kreayshawn, and Mike G.
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.