On Tuesday, January 21, CNN’s Alisyn Camerota hosted a special screening at Soho House in Manhattan of the award-winning film, “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone if You’re a Girl.” The beautiful film was followed by a Q&A with the director, Carol Dysinger.
The 40-minute film, which Dysinger introduced as, “a love letter to the young girls of Afghanistan, the boldest, bravest, funniest people I’ve ever met” is uplifting, heartwarming, and exceptional from beginning to end. It follows a class of young girls at Skateistan, a nonprofit, that began as a skate school in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2007 and has since become a multinational educational initiative. The focus of Skateistan is to recruit girls with difficult backgrounds who come from poor and impoverished neighborhoods and teach them to skateboard, which is noteworthy in its own right since many girls in Afghanistan are not allowed to participate in sports. More than that, though, the hope of the women who teach them is that they will also be able to educate the girls and teach them to read and write so they can join—or return to—the public school system. At the beginning of the film, which spans the course of a school year, the girls appear shy and timid, not only on their skateboards but also in the classroom. As the storyline progresses, the girls bloom; skateboarding inspires them to be courageous in their own lives, helping them develop skills beyond skateboarding and the classroom in order to thrive in the larger community.
By the end of the film, most of the audience had been brought to tears. This was when Dysinger took the stage to answer questions about her experience directing the film and her inspiration for creating it.
Alisyn Camerota: Thanks for being here everybody. Carol, it is such a beautiful movie. It taught me so much. And just visually it’s so richly textured, the headscarves under the helmets, and the colorful sandals, and the wheels, I mean those were just beautiful juxtapositions.
Carol Dysinger: Thank you, I had a wonderful cinematographer, Lisa Rinzler who was one of the few female cinematographers of my generation, and she’s fantastic. And one day I ran into her at a party and said, “hey do you feel like going to Afghanistan?” and she went, “Absolutely” and I was like, “Okaaay then” (laughter). And she loved it and she was very happy to go but shooting under those very limited, difficult circumstances, you need a very experienced cinematographer who will get you one great shot instead of three quick, not so great ones. She was a big part of the movie for me.
Alisyn Camerota: Let’s talk about your history shooting in Afghanistan because it goes way back at least fifteen years. And so you have a sort of affinity for Afghanistan, just tell us a little bit about how challenging it is to shoot a documentary there.
Carol Dysinger: Well, for me, I got slowly drawn into Afghanistan, which I think is how it happens for most people. The first time I went I was 49, it was kind of on a whim, sometimes I blame menopause (laughter). But every generation of men in my family has fought in whatever war was happening at the time, and I am a big lover of history and the constitution (I carry it in my purse, I’ll bring it out in a bar fight) so when I saw what was going on with the Afghan War, I thought if not me– as a divorced, childless, tenured professor at an arts school–then who?! So I just went. And I found my way around and met so many fantastic people and found I had a gift of being able to get where I wanted to go without looking like I was trying too hard.
Alisyn Camerota: Tell us about the girls, because one of the great things in the film is their arc and so what you did so beautifully is to get them to open up to you.
Carol Dysinger: I knew that they wouldn’t open up to me, not so much because I’m an American but because I’m an elder and it’s a culture of great respect for the elders. So I hired a student of mine who is a budding cinematographer and she had left Afghanistan at the age of three. So I brought her along and I told her to tell the girls that she had left and she didn’t remember her childhood in Afghanistan and to ask the children to tell her about what their childhoods had been like, because you know kids, they love to feel like they’re the ones who know. So she gained their trust and all the interviews in the documentary were through her. And I would talk to the teachers, and I discovered that they had this really brilliant thing, where they encouraged the girls by saying, “if you only know half the answer. come to the board anyway, you’ll learn the other half when you get here.” Because what they’re really teaching them to do is to raise their hand and to have the courage to offer their ideas and opinions.
The film, which was produced by Grain Media for Lifetime Films, has been nominated for a BAFTA and won Best Documentary Short at the Tribeca Film Festival. It also received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Documentary Short Subject.
You can watch the trailer here: