What may be most immediately striking to a Western audience in “Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (if you’re a girl)” is the brightly colored clothes the young girls in Kabul wear as they attend the Skateistan Schoolhouse, a makeshift academy hidden from constant strife that has long been a part of daily life in Afghanistan. In a country where the well-known patriarchal attitudes towards women continue to insist on a modest dress code, the bold reds and greens that adorn the girls reflect their inherent radiance as they receive an education, a jarring sight for those expecting their apparel to be as drab as the dusty streets outside.
“People dress up their kids and certainly in that place, these mothers would be very careful to make sure their girls looked their best when they went to school,” says Carol Dysinger, the director of “Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (if you’re a girl).”[Afghanistan] is a very colorful place, but we just don’t see that part of it. It’s so beautiful.”
It’s what has kept Dysinger coming back to the country ever since making her 2010 feature “Camp Victory, Afghanistan,” which detailed the relationship between the U.S. military and Afghan forces learning to defend themselves against the threat of the Taliban in the wake of 9/11. The filmmaker, who was compelled to make that film out of the belief that the images that she had seen coming out of the country as a hopeless place to be afraid of, showed a uniquely pragmatic perspective to depict the practicalities of nation-building as well as the human dynamics that often go unconsidered in coverage of war zone, which makes her well-suited to tell the story of the school established by the Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich, who saw an education gap in Kabul just over a decade ago and set up classes that could teach skateboarding as well as reading and math in any location he could find.
Following up “Skateistan,” “Virunga” director Orlando von Einsidel’s portrait of the early days of the nonprofit, Dysinger shows how far the organization has come and how far there remains to go in Afghanistan as she tucks into a classroom adjoined by a proper skate park where a group of girls, whose poor backgrounds would otherwise prevent them from getting an education, can speak and skate freely, though you see how even in their early age how the culture has instilled a fear of doing either. However, in structuring the film around a lesson in scaling a ramp, Dysinger captures the incremental confidence boosts they receive from learning to think for themselves, given the tools to read in a country where half the population is discouraged from doing so and finding a freedom of movement on their skateboards that they’re unlikely to want to give up once they return home.
Lovingly captured by “Menace II Society” cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, “Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (if you’re a girl)” could be seen as a triumph for international assistance, but Dysinger wisely resists that narrative, becoming far more galvanizing in conveying what Afghans are capable of once they feel enough stability to begin building something for themselves. After its premiere earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival for Best Documentary Short, the film is making a return to New York this week following a celebrated festival run for DOC NYC and to mark the occasion, Dysinger spoke about working around the challenges of shooting a film in Afghanistan, evading the deadly dullness of too much exposition and the inspiration she took from being around these young women.
How did this come about?
Part of the reason this came about is that I have been working in Afghanistan since 2004, so as [the producers] said, I was the only person that they talked to who said, “Let me tell you how I’m going to handle security” as opposed to people saying, “How are you going to keep me safe?” And I’m really glad they tapped me for it because it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.
One of the unexpected merits of being a woman filmmaker in Afghanistan is I had a greater penetration in the society than men did because I could go into the women’s room, which no man certainly of the west or any Afghan who wasn’t a close member of the family could really do. With “Camp Victory,” I would go home with one of the officers I was following and meet their wives and kids and could be in the family. As a result, I got to be very fond of many Afghan girls, and there was never a way to make a movie about them for all the obvious reasons, but they want to learn, they work really hard, and they’ve had a tough life and they figure out how to deal with it and be kids. I think they’re the best part of Afghanistan.
So when this came up, I was ecstatic because I thought, “I can make my love letter to Afghanistan,” because I didn’t go to Afghanistan for the war. I went to Afghanistan for the country. It’s a wonderful place and it’s hard to see, but I couldn’t figure out what the story would be about with the girls and I was exhausted by seeing all of these movies that framed them as victims — which they very often are, and I don’t want to belittle how difficult it is — but they have enormous resilience in the face of all that. So I was just so happy to be able to go into a place where I could really display the nature of their resilience and the very particular problems that they had.
What’s it like to put together a crew when you’ve got cultural sensitivities and age and all that to be concerned about?
That was a big part of getting this made was finding the right combination of skills and talent and ages because there was no way that I could stand in front of those girls and they treat me and therefore the camera like an elder, because I’m the age of their great-grandmother, for God sake, right? [laughs] They would’ve been very respectful and very polite and that isn’t what I wanted to see, so I found a student that had left Afghanistan at the age of three and graduated [from college], a wonderful cinematographer Zamarin Wahdat and I had her write all the questions for the girls and do the interviews. I said to her, “Tell them that you left [Afghanistan when] you were a baby and that you barely remember the place and you want to find out from them what your childhood would’ve been like there if you had stayed,” so they could be in the position of giving her something and come alive, telling her something she didn’t know. And everyone taught her to put on her headscarf, so they owned her a little bit and she gave them homework where they would draw things and talk about their drawings, so [she could] enter their lives as an older sister so that the interviews will have life to them. That never would’ve happened if I did it.
And a big thing whenever I go [to Afghanistan] is to do some training. There’s a group called Afghan Voices that trains Afghans and also makes films, and I would try to help build a film community. So we hired a girl Taman [Ayzai] and trained her to do sound, and then I tapped a friend of mine Lisa Rinzler, a brilliant cinematographer who’s my age and who has always wanted to go to Afghanistan, and God bless her, she didn’t bat an eye and just said, “Let’s do it.” Then we had Elena [Andreicheva], who’s the producer from Grain, the commissioning production company, so it was all women, two of whom were Afghan and spoke Dari and [while] I don’t speak it, I know what’s going on, so that was the right combination to get the girls to feel comfortable. Obviously, I could shoot them skateboarding because they’re doing something and not worried about me, but half of directing something like this is casting the crew in such a way that they can be in a place and have as little impact as possible.
It was refreshing to see much of the exposition regarding the set-up of this school and Skateistan saved until the end so the focus really is on the girls. Was that structure in mind from the start?
I was very clear about that in my pitch to A & E, saying “There’s various reasons [to focus on the girls], but not the least of which is should everything in Afghanistan go pear-shaped and the Taliban take over again or ISIS, these little girls would not be in trouble for being in the movie because by the time that happened, they’d be grown up and nobody could recognize them, so for the safety [of everyone], they were the safest thing to do. But I felt like how can you make a skateboarding movie when nobody can skateboard? Even the best of them is not as good as the kids in Bing’s movie [“Minding the Gap”], so I said “[This film] is about learning. And I’m a teacher, so I’m always fascinated by what gets [a student] confident because when somebody knows they can learn it, they will learn it.
What Skateistan does, which I tried to explain as briefly as possible, is that it finds kids in poor places or internally displaced refugee camps who have not started school on time, so if they were to start school, they would be three or four years older than the other kids, which is terrible for a child, so Skateistan finds them, takes them in and it gets them through grades one through third grade within a year while teaching them to skateboard so they can then enter the Afghan public school at a reasonable age. It’s brilliant, but I’ve been an editor for a long, long time and if there’s anything I can pretty much tell you for sure is that information at the top of a movie sets up expectations of a film that are not good. I always call it the “act of killing” title. It’s four lines of text that I’m sure took two years to write, and it gives you exactly as much as you needed to know to understand what was going on in the next scene. It sets up the rules of play in the movie, but everybody looks at cuts [of the film] and says, “I think I need more context. I think you need to understand more about Afghan history.”
I can’t tell you how many montages of Afghan history I cut from the beginning of “Camp Victory,” until I realized I could just have [the lead subject] say, “When I was young, there was law and order in the land…” That’s all you need to know. Information has to be a story point. It can’t just be information. It has to have emotional impact, given what you’re looking at. So I knew I had to set up [in “Learning to Skateboard”] that they were poor kids and that there was a place that gave them a chance, so it’s boiling down what exactly is the least amount of clear subject-object-verb sentences that will just align your audience enough to learn from what you’re showing them.
One of my favorite moments in the film is a great example of that when you show the one girl skating up and down the ramp as if she’s in limbo when describing the constant sense of bombardment.
Well, that’s Lisa [Rinzler, our cinematographer]. I knew what I needed was beauty and the girls’ character and a sense of progression. The tough stuff in the editing was in the classroom, how to help you see them going from not being able to read to raising their hand with confidence and cracking jokes and being free. We just had to film a lot in the classroom and go through it to find the beats that matched the progression of the skateboarding because it’s really a movie about what kids need to learn anywhere in the world. My favorite thing is when the teacher says, “I tell them if you don’t know everything, raise your hand because what you don’t know, you’ll learn when you come to the board.” And by making that acceptable in the room, she’s giving them permission to make mistakes, which girls don’t get in Afghanistan. I just thought that was so beautiful, so I started structuring all the classroom stuff around that idea of putting your hand in the air, which is a whole visual thing throughout it.
Did anything happen during filming that changed your ideas of what this could be?
There were lots of plans of what it could be from prior scouts, but when I got on the ground on the first actual day of shooting and saw the lay of the land, I knew what was the least possible that we could get. It’s like okay, if everything goes wrong, this is what we can get and structured it around that. You might hope there is a story in one of the girls’ dilemmas, but you can’t be sure that you’ll be able to film that story because I know going to people’s houses in Afghanistan can be very problematic for them.
One girl’s house we went to, within 10 minutes of us being there, a woman came in with a baby, thinking we were aid workers and wanting us to take her kid to the hospital. I turned to the crew and said, “We’re clearing out. We’re clearing out now,” And [the crew] said, “Shouldn’t we take the baby?” And it’s like, “Nope. We’re out” because it means the entire village knows we’re here and the most desperate person came first, but there’s going to be people after them. I felt terrible, but my responsibility was to the crew and I knew it would be bad for the family and for everybody if the wrong person walked through that door. So the limitations weren’t going to allow me to discover some fabulous tale, but I made the decision to structure it around learning how to skateboard because if I could get the interviews, some skateboarding and some classroom and get Mary Manhardt to edit, which is the key piece, it would give me enough to get through 40 minutes when I knew people were going to be delighted because [these girls are] just so charming and funny. I really thought a lot about how I could make all the limitations we were working under feel like choices.
After hoping to make such a film for sometime, what’s it like to have it off your shoulders?
I just hope people, whoever they voted for or whatever they think of war, [understand] we cannot screw up the end game again like we did in the ‘90s. We cannot leave and stop supporting girls’ education, clinics and hospitals. We can’t abandon supporting civil society [in Afghanistan] because these girls really do have a chance. They’re not dreaming — they do have a chance. There are women in Afghanistan like Hanifa [one of the girls’ teachers], who have grown up during what they call peacetime, even though we’d call it war, and these women have seen their older sisters grow up, so it’s no [longer] a dream. They believe they can do this and I don’t even want to think of what would happen if all these things we built up there for them to expect a decent life went away. We just can’t do that as a nation. I feel like everybody tries to make bad guys out of everybody else and we’re all just people trying to get by. Left, right, center, we’re all just people trying to deal with life and nothing human is alien to a human.