Short Film Review: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Year: 2020
Runtime: 39 Minutes
Director: Carol Dysinger

By James Cain

When it comes to countries blighted by war, it’s easy to become used to thinking of that nation as simply a warzone. You read about towns being taken, bases being mortared, bridges being destroyed, thinking of the poor civilians losing their lives in a fashion to which you probably can’t relate. You might forget that in between all of this, the people of this warzone nation are going about their daily lives, however strange or bleak this normalcy might be in comparison to your own.

BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated British documentary short “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)” reminds you of this routine (or strive for routine) in quick fashion. Across 40 minutes we watch an academic year pass by at Skateistan, a Kabul that mixes traditional subjects such as reading, writing and maths with skateboarding.

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Skateboarding in Kabul, we’re told, is a pursuit for boys, with girls expected to take up more traditional (submissive) hobbies. They also have to live in a city where attacks on – and the kidnapping of – girls and young women is commonplace, both before and after they’re forced into marriages. But at Skateistan these tiny ladies get to strap on a helmet, hop onto a skateboarding, and have some fun. And while many people live in countries where skaters of all genders are seen as commonplace, the pupils of Skateistan represent a revolution on four small wheels: Whether they know it or not (and thanks to their amazing, progressive teachers they quite possibly do), these little Kabulites represent true feminist ideals in a country long blighted by violent turmoil and lack of freedom. Both during the skating lessons and in the classroom, they learn confidence, are taught to fight for their rights, and start their journies to hopefully become bold women who can oppose patriarchal oppression.

Director Carol Dysinger, who knows Afghanistan well from her time making the documentary feature “Camp Victory, Afghanistan”, strikes an impressive balance between a professional eye and heartened championing of the women of Skateistan. She makes sure to include one teacher stating that she’s only not appearing on camera because that’s how the teacher wants it, for example. Her documenting of the pupils never feels twee or condescending. The interviews with the heroic teachers – and they are heroes – never comes across as lionising or sentimental. And while this lack of showmanship includes an underwhelmingly pedestrian score by Sasha Gordon, it’s a stance that allows us to really appreciate Skateistan as something deeply impressive and beautiful. without cliche getting in the way.

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“If I had known that skateboarding was the way to stop people getting fatigued by Afghanistan, I would’ve put the whole Afghan National Army on skateboards!” wisecracked Dysinger to Middle Eastern media outlet The National, and you can get her frustration. Many of us have indeed gotten used to passively taking in news from the nation. “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)” reminds us that we should really remain engaged, because the story of Afghanistan is one to which we should be paying attention.

To find out more about Skateistan, visit www.skateistan.org.

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