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‘Skateistan’ Offers Glimpse Into Lives of Young Afghan Skateboarders

BY Orlando von Einsiedel  June 15, 2011 at 1:32 PM EDT

“Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul” was produced and directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, who co-founded Grain Media, and has produced several award-winning documentaries, promos and shorts.

Von Einsiedel sent us this about the making of “Skateistan”:

I first heard about the good work of Skateistan from a friend who was doing aid work in Kabul. My ears immediately pricked up. Grain Media’s background was in action sports (once upon a time, I was a pro snowboarder and used to make snowboard films), but for the last few years I have spent a lot of my career shooting documentaries about social issues in places experiencing conflict.

So the idea of shooting some sort of skateboarding documentary in Afghanistan seemed like a particularly good fit for me, especially as it appeared that this was an opportunity to tell a positive story from a country only ever in the news for all the wrong reasons. I immediately got in touch with the organization and asked if I could come and make a film about their work. Skateistan gets loads of requests from filmmakers like me, so it definitely took a bit of persuading on my part. I think eventually they got fed up with my asking, and finally agreed to let me come out to Afghanistan. I also managed to win a small amount of money from a fund set up to help up-and-coming filmmakers (the Diesel New Voices film fund) and before I knew it I was flying out to Kabul on a flight packed with security contractors, aid workers and the odd journalist.

Once in Afghanistan, there were ton of difficulties in shooting the film – the budget, the weather, faulty equipment and a very tight deadline, to name a few. However, I think most people watching the film would think that the biggest difficulty in making it would have been the security situation. Afghanistan is definitely not a safe place to be, and the evidence of war and fighting is pretty much everywhere you look; however, we did not actually ever feel threatened while we were there. Funnily enough, the times we felt most scared was when NATO army convoys would drive past. The 16mm camera we were shooting on looked just like a bazooka (black metal with a giant lens) so we spent a lot of time jumping up and down and waving at troops trying to convince them that we were just stupid foreigners and not insurgents! Pretty much all Afghans we met were very friendly to us with complete strangers, often offering Franklin Dow (the film’s cinematographer) and myself cups of chai and even lunch.

Kids in Kabul grow up very quickly, with many working on the streets by the time they are 8 years old. ... Seeing their happy faces charging around on a skateboard was very special.Orlando von Einsiedel

Before we went to Afghanistan, my housemate and I were having a chat about whether spending money on a skateboard park was a legitimate use of scarce resources, especially in a country where people outside of the cities don’t have safe water or electricity. However, after spending time with the project, I really do believe that it is worth every penny given to it.

Kids in Kabul grow up very quickly, with many working on the streets by the time they are 8 years old. Skateistan is like an oasis where children can be children, and where for a few hours they can forget about the hardships of daily life. Seeing their happy faces charging around on a skateboard was very special. It is also a place where they get an education and get to mix with children of different ethnicities and classes, something the country as a whole needs to encourage if it is ever to get over years of social and ethnic conflict.

(Watch a video diary made by the filmmakers during production:)

Here are some updates on the skate park and the kids since the film was made:

Skateistan: Since filming, Skateistan has had a good 18 months. Sister projects have been set up in Pakistan, Mazar-e-Sharif and Cambodia and the Kabul school keeps on growing. More and more students are coming each month, a climbing wall has been installed and the project continues to win accolades from a variety of high-profile people and organizations.

Murza Mohammadi: Since filming in January 2010, Murza has continued to work hard at Skateistan. He has now been skateboarding for one and a half years and is one of Afghanistan’s most talented skaters. His continues to work at Skateistan as a skate instructor and as part of the maintenance crew. With his wage he supports his large family. He is also learning IT and English.

Fazila Shirindel: Fazila is one of Afghanistan’s best female skateboarders and is now the head female skate teacher at the Kabul facility. She is still studying hard and is one of the school’s top students. She hopes to be the director of Skateistan one day.

You can watch the complete Skateistan documentary online. Find more from The Economist Film Project.