Skateistan: Exploring the Skateboarding Scene in Kabul

No matter how tough it is to skate in Nowheresville, U.S.A., the skate scene there is definitely healthier than the one in Kabul, Afghanistan. Director Kai Sehr portrays the NGO skate school in this doc screening as part of the Phi Centre’s Skate or Die series of skateboarding movies.

Like most magazines, skateboard monthlies publish letters to the editor. And one of the most common themes of those letters is the grim state of the skate scene in pretty much any non-coastal North American city.

Their authors bemoan, among myriad other issues, the lack of decent skate spots in their town, their police force’s war on skaters, the aggression they face at the hands of jocks, local girls’ disdain for them and so on.

But no matter how tough it is to skate in Nowheresville, U.S.A., the skate scene there is definitely healthier than the one in Kabul, Afghanistan, where, in the midst of war, skateboard wheels first touched dusty concrete in 2007.

That’s when Oliver Percovich, a 30-something Australian transplant, began rounding up kids and putting them on boards. Slowly, the skate gospel spread, and Percovich’s NGO, Skateistan, grew. In Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul, director Kai Sehr chronicles Percovich’s unlikely initiative, from his sometimes difficult dynamic with the locals to his goal of opening an indoor skatepark in the city.

But while Percovich brings boards, ramps and even pros to Afghanistan, he leaves skateboarding’s California-centric sensibilities at home. This way, we hear, Afghanistan’s most conservative clerics will be less likely to brand the sport — the only one in the country that boys and girls take part in together — a force of moral corruption.

Percovich’s caution is merited. Western skaters may whine about security guards, but kids in Afghanistan have to contend with the Taliban, whose tactics threaten to put a stop to their fun.

In addition to Percovich, we meet a cast of skaters that includes Mirwais, an at-times violent and misogynistic teenager, who reminds us that even amid skating and smiles, the documentary takes place in Afghanistan, a country coloured by war.

And therein lies the film’s strength: its setting. As the conflict-focused news clips woven into it remind us, kids skateboarding in an empty fountain is not a side of Afghanistan we often see. Neither is the struggle to build a skatepark. Sehr, however, loses sight of this, and Skateistan tends to ramble. It also morphs into a kind of travelogue about visiting professional skateboarders.

Still, Skateistan offers a human view of a misunderstood country. With a sharper focus, though — and perhaps a shorter run time — it could have offered a lot more. ■

Skateistan screens tonight, Thursday Aug. 16, as part of the Skate or Die series at Phi Centre (407 St-Pierre), 7:30 p.m., $10

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