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'Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you're a girl)': Growing Up Female in Afghanistan


Courtesy of Lifetime Films

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in an ultra-conservative patriarchal society? If your answer is, "No, it's already depressing enough waking up in the nightmare of Trump’s America," read no further. However, if you've ever wanted to know what it is like to be a female in Afghanistan, to peek behind that particular curtain, then Grain Media and Lifetime Films have a documentary for you. 

Documentary recently spoke with director Carol Dysinger about the making of the IDA Documentary Award-winning Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl), and the significance of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s nomination for Best Documentary Short.

DOCUMENTARY: I wanted to open not with a question but an observation: As Learning to Skateboard begins, we are acutely aware of the male gaze as the camera travels through the ravaged streets of Kabul. It’s very off-putting, but also an intuitive way to set the tone and make your audience aware of what it is like to be a woman in Afghanistan today.

CAROL DYSINGER: We used the fact that there was a woman behind the camera to sort of reproduce what would happen if just a woman walked down the street, especially with her face showing and no male accompaniment.

D: There is a rather chilling sound bite when one of the women explains that some of the families have enemies, and kidnapping is a very real fear.

CD: Yes, and they kidnap the girls, not the boys, to dishonor the family. If a girl is taken out from under the protection of her family, it's just assumed that she’s disgraced. It’s an honor thing, like Jane Austen or something.

D: Can you talk a bit about the first teacher, the one who did not want to have her face shown on camera?

CD: She didn't want to show her face, but she's the one who speaks English and drives a car. So she's probably the most modern of the teachers, but she said to me, "If my face shows up on television, my brothers are going to tease me until the day I die." And I remember when I was young, I felt the same way. If you ever got up past what you were supposed to be doing, the guys would tease you about it. That's how it starts when oppression is part of the culture. As women, we're not so far away from what these women are dealing with. My Italian grandmother couldn’t read or write. Her school taught her how to embroider, and that was it. It's not so far away; they're not so different from us. These mothers, like my own mother, are trying to prepare their daughters for a world they can’t even imagine. I find that beautiful and compelling.

D: During one sequence we see a cohort of young boys leaving the indoor skatepark as the class of young girls arrives. Can you talk a bit about Skateistan as a school, and how you were able to gain access to these girls' stories?

CD:  Well, Orlando von Einsiedel, who is the only male in the above-the-line credits, had made a movie in 2010 with Ollie Percovich, who was the guy who started Skateistan. A&E [the distributor of Learning to Skateboard...] called Grain Media, which is Orlando's company, and said that they wanted to do a movie about the girls in Skateistan. They wouldn't open their doors for just anybody, but Orlando and I had a relationship, so they figured that I could pull it off. But there was a lot of discussion about what we could shoot and couldn't shoot. One of the issues of the movie is that the girls don't skateboard outside, and how do you make a skateboarding movie when nobody [except the boys] can skateboard outdoors? But that became a big part of the story, that the indoor skatepark was a safe space for them. And so we agreed to film the girls where they were, and I wouldn't try to get them to go outside or do anything outside of the norm, which they wouldn't have done anyway.

D: The women interviewed seemed to be very comfortable on camera. How did you establish that relationship and their trust of you and your all-female crew?

CD: They're teachers and so am I. So, as teachers and professors, we talked a lot about students and how we did things in the classroom. And that's how I discovered what I thought was so interesting where they always said to the girls, "If you don't know the answer but you think you know half of it, raise your hand. You'll learn the rest at the board." You know, the only mistake is not trying—take the chance, take the risk, which is not what they’re raised to do. I thought that is such a good way to teach these girls, and I sort of hinged the movie around it, that you lack courage because you didn’t raise your hand.

D: The young girls were very open and unassuming. How were you able to break down the cultural barriers and get them to open up?

CD: I knew I couldn’t interview them because I'm an elder, and they would be very well-behaved towards me, so I hired Zamarin Wahdat, who was a student of mine. She left Afghanistan when she was three and grew up in Germany, but she spoke Dari. She also did some second-unit camera; she’s very good. Once we figured out who we were following, I had her go to the girls and say, "I don't remember anything about my life in Afghanistan. Could you tell me what my childhood would have been like if I hadn’t left?" Kids like to feel generous, they like it when they’re saying something that the other person doesn’t know. She had them teach her how to put on her headscarf properly, and do drawings for her; she really big-sistered them.

And then we hired Tam [Taman Ayzai], who was another Afghan filmmaker. We taught her how to do sound and how to AC on the camera. And because she was doing sound, she could hear what they were saying, and could keep me abreast of what was being said when we were in the skatepark and in the classroom. I mean, I've been in Afghanistan a long time, and I kind of understand Dari, but I didn't want to interrupt for translation, so she would clarify if I didn't understand something, just to make sure we got certain things.

D: How did being a female filmmaker actually empower you to make this film?

CD: Well, being a woman of a certain age, covering the Afghan National Army [during the making of Camp Victory, Afghanistan], I was one of the very few people whom the Afghan officers could take to their home and introduce to their families because the wives and children would never meet a man who was not a direct member of the family. I could go through the curtain into the kitchen where the women and girls were, and I desperately wanted to figure out how to make a movie where you could meet these girls the way they really are. So, during the shooting of the documentary, only three of us were Westerners: myself; Lisa Rinzler, the director of photography; and Elena Andreicheva, the producer. The rest of the crew was Afghan, which you have to do. You can't function with just a translator.

D: Along those lines, what drew you to this and your other documentary projects in Afghanistan?

CD: I started going to Afghanistan because of America's involvement, but I stayed because of the country, and the people I met, and the friends I made. I think there are a lot of individuals in our community who want to go somewhere because it's dangerous or because it's different, but we all really need to have a gut check: Why are we the persons to tell this story? It's the most important question a documentarian can ask themselves. As my old Afghan guide used to say, "The minute you think you know what's going on is the minute you are going to be sold a very bad rug." So, if you stay open, it helps to shrink those blindspots. That's why I've worked so hard as a teacher to make sure that there are Afghan filmmakers in Afghanistan. In all the 15 years I was there, I was always teaching; I would put together a class of young Afghan filmmakers, or there's a group there called Afghan Voices that was training young journalists. And I would teach a class on cutting, or various camera work, or give feedback on their cuts because there are some very good filmmakers coming up and working now, and it's not just the ex-pats who came back, which is great.

Filmmaker Carol Dysinger. Courtesy of Lifetime Films

D: This isn't the first time you and your work have been recognized by the Academy. Could you speak to how that has influenced your career in the industry?

CD: I am deeply grateful to the Academy not just for this honor, but they awarded me a Student Academy Award in 1977 [for the dramatic short Sixteen Down], which Frank Capra handed to me, of all people. And I don't think I could have withstood the last 40 years in this business if I hadn't had that wind at my back.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl) screens as part of IDA's DocuDay LA, February 8 at 1:00 p.m. at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills. Carol Dysinger and Producer Elena Andreicheva will participate in a post-screening discussion. Click here for tickets.

Tom Gianakopoulos is contributing editor at Documentary. In a perpendicular universe, he also teaches English and Communication at American Career College in Los Angeles and Screenwriting at New York Film Academy in Burbank.