‘Skateistan’ dir. Orlando von Einsiedel

Documentary short following the social role played by the ‘Skatesitan’ project in post-war Afghanistan

Year: 2010
Country: UK/Afghanistan
Director: Orlando von Einsiedel
Producers: Orlando von Einsiedel and Lousi Figgis 

C8: ‘Skateistan’ is an incredible project. How did you hear about it and when did you decide to make a film about it?

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 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. I was also really interested in making a film that was about something positive happening in Afghanistan.

C8: Kabul must be an extremely challenging place to make a documentary, how did you go about planning the shoot and what were the biggest unknowns before you got out there?

This film definitely didn’t have an easy birthing process. There were tons of difficulties in planning and shooting it – the budget, the weather, faulty equipment, a very tight deadline etc. 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 live or work, 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 and funnily enough, the time we felt most nervous was when American army convoys would drive past. The 16mm camera we were shooting on looked just like a bazooka (big, black and shoulder mounted…) so we spent a lot of time jumping up and down and waving at U.S. 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.

C8: How did you plan your aesthetic approach?

While I did not really know exactly what material we’d get in the can and what the end film would actually end up like, I had a pretty strong idea of how I wanted it to look and to feel. I knew I wanted it to feel timeless and cinematic so we decided to shoot it on 16mm, I wanted the film to feel a bit dreamy and less ‘real’ than most documentaries so we made the decision to not show interviewees talking to camera and finally I wanted our main characters to be able to talk very openly and naturally to me so we recorded the interviews in a really relaxed conversational situation and just used a small microphone (and not an imposing camera). Of course decisions like the above are often influenced by the films one’s been watching at the time… I had really loved the verité style of editing in Iraq In Fragments, the 16mm visuals of City of God and the gorgeous moving portraits from The Motor Cycle Diaries. Looking back all of these films contributed to the aesthetic of Skateistan.

C8: The film shows a very bleak contemporary Kabul in contrast to the youthful energy and hopefulness of the next generation skaters. How surprised were you by the amount of kids getting involved?

Seeing so many happy faces charging around on a skateboard was quite special. In fact, I can’t bang the Skateistan drum loud enough. 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 10 days 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. 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.

C8: One of the most interesting elements explored in the film is the inclusion of young girls in the activities. Did you get a sense that gender relations are changing there, slowly but surely? What was the attitude of the boy skaters towards the girls?

I was only in Kabul so I cannot comment on the country as a whole but I was pretty amazed at how far things had come along since the fall of the Taliban. There is of course still opposition to women’s advancement (many of the young female skaters spoke of their parents being against them skating) and they often got snide remarks from older men when they were skating on the streets. But, I do think the tide is against the tranditionalists and that going forwards we will see more and more women doing great things for the country. The boys at Skateistan itself were really supportive of the girls.

While it’s amazing that there is a growing number of female Afghans doing the kinds of things that most women around the world take for granted, the thing that really amazed me the most was a feeling that hope is still very much alive in Afghanistan. I spent 2 weeks being surrounded by children who had so much hope and ambition for their country. They were so acutely aware of how far behind Afghanistan has been left by the rest of the world in the development stakes, and they really just wanted to put the war behind them and help rebuild their country. In the UK all we really see from Afghanistan are images of war and unhappiness, but I hope our short film goes some way towards showing that there is still some hope very much alive there.

C8: You must have an extraordinary amount of interesting footage and material – was it difficult honing it down to a 9 minute short? 

Actually, because we shot it all on 16mm, which is incredibly expensive, we didn’t end up with that much footage. I think we brought out 12 rolls of 400ft 16mm Fuji film which works out as about 120 minutes. That said, even cutting that down to 9 minutes was a nightmare! We originally had three characters in the film and the first edits were all around 20 minutes long. In the end you just have to get brutal. The film was always meant to be a short so 10minutes was about the maximum length it could comfortably be and some painful decisions eventually got it to around that length. Much of the extra material we shot can be seen in some of the video diaries we made each night in Kabul for Dazed & Confused magazine. These are available to watch on Vimeo or YouTube in case anyone is interested.

C8: How is ‘Skateistan’ developing as a project from year to year? Do you ever think there might be mileage for a feature film?

The Skateistan project continues to go from strength to strength. They’ve recently opened schools in other parts of the country and there are burgeoning sister projects in Cambodia and Pakistan. And, someone has already made a feature film about the project. It’s very different in style to our short film and was released a year or so ago. You can check it out here to find out when it will screen in a cinema near you: www.skateistanthemovie.com/

C8: Where does ‘Skateistan’ sit in your career, what had you done before it?

I’d done a lot of films before Skateistan but I guess this was my first film to really blow up and pick up a lot of traction. I’m very proud of the film (and what it did for the charity itself) but I’ve moved on as a filmmaker. Over the past few years I’ve tried to move onto longer form projects which I love working on. They are hugely demanding but are also very satisfying from a creative perspective and because you really get to build up much deeper relationships with the people you’re making the film about, which is always nice.

C8: What’s the essence of a good collaboration?

I think for a good collaboration to work, at least when it comes to making a film, all people working on it need to be sure they are working on the same film. I know this may seem obvious but I think it’s really important for everyone to be coming from the same point of view and have the same vision and it’s amazing how often the editor, director and cinematographer are all actually working on different movies. I think the director’s role is really key in bringing everyone together to share a similar vision and I think that when everyone is in this same place, the end result is that much better. I still work a lot with the team that made Skateistan (we are all currently working on a big project at the moment) and after a few years working together I think we’ve just about managed to work out how to all work together in a really nice, original and creative way.  

C8: What’s next on the horizon for Orlando von Einsiedel

I’ve just finished up an archival film about the history of snowboarding and I’m currently working on a feature documentary about some of the most inspiring and brave people I’ve ever come across. They are trying to save the last of the world’s mountain gorillas in the midst of a civil war in the Congo. Check out www.grainmedia.co.uk or facebook.com/grainmedia for updates on this film and all of the other projects our team is working on at the moment.