Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) is a brilliant short film following four young Afghan girls and their teachers at Kabul-based initiative Skateistan. The multinational non-profit focuses on supporting underprivileged girls in a country still in the grip of violent conflict, dating back to the wake of the Twin Tower attacks in 2001.
Skateboarding lessons are combined with more traditional educational classes to give the young girls of Afghanistan a better opportunity to enrol at regular school, their empowerment guided by the women and mentors who teach them.
A critical hit on the film festival circuit, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone… has just done the awards season double, being nominated for both a BAFTA and Oscar in the best documentary short film categories. We spoke to the director, American filmmaker and NYU professor Carol Dysinger, about her beautiful, inspiring film – and about how you can still have an artistic breakthrough, as she says chirpily, “even when you have grey hair”.
How does it feel to be an Oscar nominee?
It’s amazing. I’ve been making movies in Afghanistan since 2005 and I’ve always wanted to do something about the girls because they’re the best thing about the damn country. It’s like the little movie that could.
How did Skateistan first come to your attention?
Everyone in Kabul knows about Skateistan, so travelling around Afghanistan for the last 15 years I was bound to hear about it. Skateistan takes children who didn’t start school on time for whatever reason, and teaches them the curriculum from first to third grade – all while using skateboarding as a way to develop their life and physical skills so they can enter the Afghan public school, and do well at it.
What was your approach to telling their story?
I came up with the structure of the girls teaching you how to skateboard because I didn’t want to get into their family life stories and them trying to have to explain Afghan culture. I just wanted you to meet them. I couldn’t interview the girls personally, not because I’m American but because I’m old. As an elder, they’d respect me and be on their best behaviour, which was the last thing I wanted. So, I hired one of my students, who had left Afghanistan when she was three and had never been back, to interview the girls. Putting the film together was actually very calculated in order to keep the girls and their families comfortable, and to not be a western film crew falling into their lives and falling out.
How did you cast the girls?
I walked into the classroom and there were these four girls at the back whispering to each other. I just cast them on the spot. It’s a very enclosed space and we had to work with what was in that space, both human and physical, because they don’t skateboard outside so we couldn’t see them out in the world. People kept saying that they would love to see the girls skateboarding down the street. But if people wanted me to make a fictional film then I would, but that’s the only way you’re going to see them skateboard down a street because they don’t do it in real life.
Shooting in Afghanistan, a country with strong patriarchal and religiously conservative traditions – and with you as a foreign, female director – did you encounter any particular difficulties?
When I was out shooting my other films with the Afghan military and the Afghan government, I had to deal with the conservative views of the country. Skateistan is completely run by Afghans and there are women within this power structure, so that helped. The hard part was trying to shoot on the street. You need to have a man, you can’t just go wondering about on your own.
How did the film make an impact on you personally?
I know it seems crazy, but I identify with these girls. I remember when I was young and not being allowed to wear pants to school even when it was winter, and having to help in the kitchen whilst the boys were running around. It’s not nearly what they go through. But [I understand] that restriction of knowing the answer, but not being able to say because it would make the boys feel stupid. It’s being too smart for your own good.
What did you find most interesting about filming in Afghanistan?
There’s this idea that all Afghan fathers want to sell their daughter for a car battery and all Afghan mothers want their daughters to have the hell that they went through. That’s not the case. There are men who walk their daughters to school every day because they want them to be educated, so that they have a better chance of having a good life. That was the other thing: this hunger for education. That really moved me so much because I come from an Italian immigrant family. My grandparents could barely speak English, but we were going to school no matter what. It’s a feeling that sometimes gets lost, that hunger for education. It’s one of my attractions to Afghanistan that it reminds me of my grandparent’s generation and of a world that I came from that doesn’t really exist anymore.
You’ve been in the film industry since the Seventies – how much has it changed?
When I was younger I tried to direct movies. But since women weren’t really in the film business at that time, I couldn’t translate that into work, though I tried. So instead I went into editing and screenwriting, because they allowed women to edit back then. I actually ended up cutting up a lot of videos for The Clash. I needed filmmaking to not be my living in order to really find my voice. So, teaching gave me the freedom to go to Afghanistan, to find what I wanted to talk about. After all my blazing attempts to break into life in the sky, I decided I’m going to work down here. Now I realise that things have changed so much for women in the business. Now that I’m an Oscar nominee maybe cutting “Rock The Casbah” won’t lead my obituary anymore!
What would be your ideal response to your film?
That people pay attention to the civilian side in Afghanistan; education, healthcare, those things that are a direct help. It’s an honour and I have to thank both the British Academy and the Oscars for recognising these girls… and helping people to understand that we cannot abandon these girls. Whatever you think of war, whoever you voted for, we as people, not as governments, cannot abandon the girls of Afghanistan. We cannot fuck up again.