It is a fact that Hip Hop has taken root all over the globe. Citizens of nations thousands of miles from the culture’s birthplace have their everyday lives influenced and shaped by Hip Hop. But here in America, we see very little return. Beyond the occasional Latin or British emcee cracking the Top 40 there is little evidence that Hip Hop is global, and has been for decades. (Hip Hop is not alone in this regard; very few Pop or Rock acts from non-English speaking nations who perform in their native tongue attain sustained success in the U.S.) That is why a film like Wholetrain is so welcome. It offers a glimpse of Hip Hop in a context that we don’t normally see. And it also serves as a reminder that no matter where one grows up the way we react to certain stimuli will be pretty much the same.
Wholetrain was made in Germany by director Florian Gaag, and it depicts a group of four young men completely enthralled with Hip Hop, more specifically with the art of graffiti writing. (The title refers to the act of covering an entire train in graffiti.) The film’s main protagonists are two best friends with very dissimilar temperaments, David (Mike Adler), reflective and pragmatic, and Tino (Florian Renner), thoughtless, goofy, and quick to anger. Their crew, KSB, is threatened by a new set of writers, ATL, whose style is far more aggressive and modern. They struggle to keep up with these interlopers, all the while dodging police who seem to turn up any where they go. David and Tino’s crew’s relationship to these two groups set up the main theme of the film: the conflict between the old and the new. Interestingly KSB represents both depending on who they are dealing with. Wholetrain also deals with the impermanence of graffiti. The artists know that their work will be on display only briefly before it is washed off, painted over, or crossed out. This reality causes them to create constantly on any surface they can find. They strive to make their mark, literally, in a world that wants nothing more than to erase it. It’s this idea that has always made graffiti writers the true outlaws of Hip Hop, they are, after all, the only practitioners of the “original four elements” that face jail time when they practice their craft. And the filmmaker’s use of hand held camera’s increases the film tension. The viewer is never able to get comfortable, they feel the same fear the writers do: that the cops and jail time are around every corner.
At times the film can feel like something you’ve seen before. It certainly borrows elements from countless other teenagers in revolt films of the past. But the strong work of the two leads and the eye-popping art on display throughout don’t give the audience much time to linger on the flaws. Wholetrain is an invigorating portrait of a sub-culture completely inspired by America (all of the music is in English and the soundtrack boasts big names like KRS-One, O.C., Reef The Lost Cauze, and more) thriving half the world away, that also has some thought provoking things to say about the nature of art, its place in society, and the sacrifices artists must make.