Carol Dysinger’s Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) won the Oscar for Best Short Documentary at the 92nd Academy Awards, held 9 Feb 2020. The film is produced by London-based Grain Media.
Dysinger’s 40-minute film follows, over the course of a year, a class of girls attending Skateistan, an Afghan non-profit institution that began as a skate school in Kabul in 2017 before evolving into a multinational educational initiative.
Here, the girls learn to read and write… and skate, all the time experiencing a sense of empowerment both from their engagement in the activity and the inspiration of the women who teach them.
Director Dysinger has worked in Afghanistan on and for the past 15 years, and has come to love both the country and its people.
“I really just set out to make a love letter to my favourite place,” she comments of her film. “I go there for the country not the war, although I have certainly seen a lot of the latter. And I love the girls of Afghanistan, and I have been trying to figure out a way to make a movie that would really show you their spirit.”
“When they called me about Skateistan I was there in a heartbeat,” she adds, “because I knew that it could really let you see these mischievous, cunning, hilarious, cute, innocent little girls who must not go under the Taliban rule – they just cannot.”
The film argues that the return of Taliban rule would also mean the return of the burqa, the closure of schools and “ruined lives of children”.
Learning to Skateboard… is presented in five chapters that double as a skating manual for beginners, starting with standing on the board before progressing onto more complex manoeuvres such as shooting the ramp.
All the time we are introduced to the girls and their teachers and we receive a glimpse of life in some of their homes.
The girls and their families are ambitious for their futures, despite their impoverished start in life. One wants to be an eye doctor (“so I can fix eyes”), others harbour desires to be a pilot, a journalist and a teacher. “Don’t act fragile,” is the school mantra, which is apt given that the sound of car and suicide bombs regularly punctuate the film’s soundtrack.
The film is not without action, there is much footage of the girls and teachers on their boards. Dysinger stresses how she had to rein in DOP Lisa Rinzler who was looking to shoot some “wild shots”. Afghanistan is not, Dysinger argues, the best place to find yourself hospitalised in after a fall.
She further stresses how she was keen to draw as little attention as possible to what she and her co-filmmakers were doing. Cultural and religious norms, she stresses, along with other factors such as safety concerns and years of warfare, have resulted in limited athletic and recreational opportunities for women and girls.
“The biggest difficulty is really operating quietly without calling attention to yourself, getting in and getting out in a well-mannered way that doesn’t get the people you are shooting, or the places you are going, into trouble.”
On the face of it, there seems to be enough here in terms of story and material, for a feature. Why did Dysinger opt for a 40-minute film?
“What I have noticed in this world is that a lot of documentary features do not have a third act. They are stretched out,” she answers. “To create the kind of dramatic arc that you need for a feature takes a long time…I came up with the structure of having the girls teach the audience how to skateboard, which no matter how little [material] I got or how often I got shut down or thrown out, I could deliver [on]. It wasn’t dependant on catching some emotional moment. There is no real main character. For a feature, I would have to have shot for another year or two.”
“The documentary short is such a great thing,” she adds. “It fits into a school time period and into a cable TV outlet, and let’s face it, with theatrical distribution for [feature] documentaries, you get 8000 people worldwide who agree with you, whereas if you do a short that can go in to a lot of different places, on television, in schools, on streaming and things like that, you get 10 million people… and [they] cost a lot less.”
Dysinger makes a plea for all governments not to “abandon diplomacy” if we are to witness the blossoming of future Afghani generations.
“If all this blood and treasure that both our countries, and many European countries, have spent is worth anything, it’s the fact that there have been two generations of girls who have gone through school, and 70% of the people of Afghanistan are under 30. There is a chance now – if we don’t abandon them – of Afghanistan becoming a modern nation. It sounds unbelievable but it’s true. I felt like this was my way of saying ‘look at these girls, of course there is hope’.
“Because where there is girls there is always hope.”