Awards on their own aren’t proof that something is good or even worth checking out, and that’s especially true for the Oscars. Corny movies like Avatar, The Grinch, and Suicide Squad have all won Oscars, and corny skaters like The Flying Tomato and Nigel Hudson have taken home enough ESPY trophies to fill their cavernous homes and even emptier egos.
So thankfully, this year at the Oscars, a legitimately amazing skateboarding documentary walked away victorious.
The film, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), won for Best Documentary Short Subject and focuses on young girls in Afghanistan who go to school and learn to skate through the non-profit Skateistan. Last year’s snub of the skate doc Minding the Gap will not be forgotten, but Learning to Skateboard‘s win makes us feel good to be skateboarders, and the film is deserving of all its praise.
Through interviews with 8 to 12 year-old students, teachers, and a ripping skate instructor named Treena, the film demonstrates how many obstacles women growing up in Afghanistan have to accessing basic things like education and independence, and how since 2008, Skateistan has changed the lives of over 7,000 boys and girls around the world. In addition to their two centers in Afghanistan (Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif), Skateistan also works with kids in Cambodia and South Africa.
If you didn’t know much about Afghanistan aside from terrorist groups, bombings, and back-to-back war, life can be rough, and especially for women. The film, made by two documentarians, Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva, focuses on girls enrolled in Skateistan because they tend to see much more dramatic benefits from being involved, and they generally can’t even roll around the streets in Kabul, for fear of, among other things, being kidnapped.
I knew Skateistan had been around for years, but I never fully understood all they did. Aside from providing skateboards (lots of vintage Quasi/Mother decks on view), shoes (nice to see some iPaths and even Fallen (!) models), and an indoor park with instructors, they have an impressive educational aspect that allows girls to attend school there and learn to read and write for the first time.
In Afghanistan, families commonly keep their daughters at home doing chores, taking care of their brothers, and effectively waiting around to be married. So the classroom experiences they have at Skateistan, which include an emphasis on developing girls’ self-esteem and self-expression, have the potential to alter the course of their lives forever.
As one girl says in the beginning of the film, “Before Skateistan, I didn’t do anything.” Now she has a hobby, more friends, and a stronger sense of self in the world.
Winning an Oscar won’t fundamentally change Skateistan’s operations, and it’s not like the women in the film can use that notoriety to launch themselves into Digital Influencer-dom, but the recognition feels good and is part of a larger shift in the way skateboarding is valued in the world.
Skateboarders know there’s more to skating than surface level tricks or clips, but outsiders can’t always see beyond that. When Skateistan does outreach to recruit new students, they make a point to put on demos. That way they can win over parents with the education aspect, entice kids with skating, and eventually keep them both involved as they experience skating’s intangible benefits.
Whether or not the Oscars mean anything to you at all, a lot of real good is coming from this mixture of education and skateboarding, so you can’t really be mad about that.