Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul: Film Review

Skateboard culture makes a mixed impression on contemporary Afghanistan.

A lively account of Westerners’ attempts to introduce skateboarding to Afghani youth, director Kai Sehr puts a positive spin on the seemingly intractable military and political crisis in Afghanistan.

With all the tragic news emerging from Kabul on an almost daily basis, it’s encouraging to encounter a documentary that puts a positive spin on the seemingly intractable military and political crisis in Afghanistan. A lively account of Westerners’ attempts to introduce skateboarding to local youth, Skateistan could see limited theatrical play in major metros, but ultimately it’s best suited to DVD or VOD.

Director Kai Sehr and cinematographer Ralf K. Dobrick are as adept at shooting skateboarding action with both kids and pros as they are at filming potentially fraught situations with Afghan families and officials. The filmmakers’ decision to omit much of the background on the security situation keeps the narrative from digressing into political territory while pitching an expansive tent that both Afghans and foreigners can feel comfortable in.

Australian aid workers Oliver Percovich and Sharna Nolanarrived in Kabul a few years ago and coincidentally discovered that teaching skateboarding to the city’s youth was an effective way to help introduce literacy and health programs into the community. As neighborhood kids begin flocking to the abandoned fountain in a streetside park where Percovich and Nolan pass the time with their boards, Percovich realizes that in a country unfamiliar with skate culture, which also bars girls from many sports, skateboarding might offer an ideal entrée to a society largely closed to outsiders.

Working with a small team of international volunteers, Percovich and Nolan establish the nongovernmental Skateistan organization and begin importing boards and equipment to train local youth at their outdoor fountain practice rink. The kids’ level of enthusiasm begins to outstrip Skateistan’s limited resources and Percovich concludes that a better-equipped, permanent structure will be necessary to underpin Skateistan’s educational and health-improvement efforts.

His goal of establishing an indoor skate arena equipped with classrooms and showers takes Percovich from the halls of the Afghan Olympic committee to the offices of international donors to solicit support, land and funds. The Afghan government donates the building site, an American company takes on the construction project practically at cost and international aid organizations donate funds for materials and equipment. For the right professional touches, Percovich brings in German skate ramp designer Andreas Schuetzenberger and four international pros to train and inspire the Skateistan kids.

Percovich and Skateistan’s ultimate goal is to persuade children of different ethnicities (Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek) to learn from one another and play together as a method of eventually bridging some of Afghanistan’s cultural and political divides. Percovich enlists and trains several of the more skilled and enthusiastic teens to help teach the younger kids. Significantly, local girls play a major role in trying to bridge social barriers -- in Afghanistan’s conservative Islamic society, skateboarding remains the only sport that girls can publicly participate in.

The film’s fairly predictable arc is energetically enlivened by the local children. Skateistansucceeds best when it focuses on the kids’ struggle to master the sport and balance the demands of athletics with family and cultural expectations. The filmmakers’ attempt to cast one of the teen street kids as something of a villain for his bad behavior is less persuasive.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Fest
Production companies: DEFILM, Features While-U-Wait
Director: Kai Sehr
Screenwriter: Nadia Soraya Hennrich
Producer: Rene Kock
Director of photography: Ralf K. Dobrick
Music: Rex Faraday
Editor: Nadia Soraya Hennrich
No rating, 95 minutes