This film follows the progression of Skateistan, an NGO formed by Oliver Percovich who’s otherwise known as Ollie, which coincidentally happens to be the name of a skateboarding trick.
The nonprofit came about almost accidentally, as Ollie and his girlfriend, Sharna Nolan, skateboarded in an abandoned fountain in Kabul simply to pass time. As local kids began to gather, each one possessing a strong desire to learn the sport, the duo began to frequent the fountain weekly, giving lessons to the children. Each week, the crowd grew, eventually leading to the rise of Skateistan.
The organization not only uses skateboarding as a way to connect children of various backgrounds, but also gets kids to get off of the streets and into the classroom. To get the organization off the ground, Ollie must jump through a number of hurdles. First, he succeeds in obtaining donations of boards and shoes. Next, he must make pitches to government agencies, foreign embassies, construction companies, professional skaters in order to obtain both land and money to build a skate-park equipped with school facilities. According to Ollie, “Skateistan’s real mission is to get Kabul’s kids first to play together, then to learn together, and ultimately, to live together.” Today, skateboarding is among the few recreational activities in Afghanistan that is enjoyed by boys and girls together.
What follows are excerpts from a recent interview in Santa Barbara with Skateistan director Kai Sehr and producer Rene Kock:
Q: Where did most of the filming take place?
Kock: All of the filming took place in Afghanistan … over the course of five trips. [We] followed individual kids and followed the hobby.
Q: How do you feel about being nominated for the Social Justice Award, and what impact do you think it will have on the film?
Kock: [We were] very surprised when we heard we were nominated by the city of Santa Barbara, [it] came totally out of the blue. [We] surely hope it draws more of an audience. I don’t know the promotion that goes along with it, but it’s definitely an honor.
Sehr: I felt very good about it, and I felt very good about Skateistan and organization. [We were] positively surprised. [We] hope Skateistan gets recognition for it, because they are definitely doing tremendous and unparalleled social work in Kabul.
Q: What message do you hope the film conveys to the audience?
Kock: I think it’s through and through a positive message; a message of hope, and how social work can be done differently, how people can come together, how we can help with very little, without the use of weapons.
Sehr: The film shows that with very little means, one can make progress in breaking social, ethnic and gender boundaries. [We] used the skateboard as a tool. It’s an eye-opener. [We didn’t have weapons or guards with us] and so Skateistan [was] truly among the people, and we hope that translates in the film. We wanted to show normal life, and how these kids are just like kids everywhere.
Q: How is the skate culture in Kabul different from that of the US?
Sehr: Afghan kids are inventing skateboarding on their own. There isn’t even a word for it, that’s why it’s called four wheels and a board.
Q: How long did filming take?
Kock: We filmed for an entire year, and it took another year in post-production.
Q: How does Skateistan allow the kids to enroll in school?
Kock: This is one of the big goals: Use a skateboard as a tool to get street kids into school. We’ve put 15 kids into school. They have classrooms with computers in the skate-hall itself. It’s a tradeoff—the same amount of time is spent skating as in school. They are learning life skills, art, arithmetic, math and reading, with all expenses covered.
Q: What impact has the film had on the organization?
Kock: Well it’s hard to judge. Skateistan had a lot of press exposure before. The film isn’t out yet so it’s hard to say. In one sense it was helpful while we were there. During the five trips to Afghanistan, it helped to have cameras there during important meetings with Afghan officials and skate-park makers. [They] couldn’t go back on their word when they knew it was recorded. People are more honest when cameras are there. So it definitely helped during production and it will help once [the film] gets more exposure.
Q: How did you go about getting famous skaters to participate?
Sehr: This was the concept from the very beginning, to see Kabul from the eyes of the skaters and bring in the Western culture [of skating] into their culture. Many [skaters] were very open to going. It was an important moment in their lives to go and see Afghanistan. Three of the four will be in Santa Barbara this weekend for the screening. Unfortunately, Maysam Faraj wasn’t able to get a US visa.
Q: Do you think the company will expand?
Kock: Skateistan has plans to open skate parks in other cities in Afghanistan, Herat is next.
Skateistan: Bringing People Together One Ollie at a Time screens January 29, 7 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre; January 31, 10:20 a.m. at Metro 4 Theatre II; and February 2, 11 a.m. at Metro 4 Theatre IV. The schedule is subject to change, so see independent.com/sbiff for updates.