Not much positive news tends to come out of Afghanistan, but a pocket of it shines through in one of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary shorts.
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), directed by Carol Dysinger, reveals a school in Kabul called Skateistan that offers kids the chance to study the three R’s and pick up skateboarding. For Afghan girls who are often deprived of an education—physical or academic—it’s an unheard of opportunity.
“It means the world to them. I’m a teacher, I’m a professor, and I have never in my life seen kids that were so hungry to learn and just so happy to learn, because they know it’s not a given and they like being engaged with their minds,” Dysinger tells Deadline. If not for Skateistan, she notes, the girls “would be very much in the house around the women helping out, hanging onto skirts, trying not to be bored and taking care of the boys or the babies, whichever there are more of or who needs it.”
The short documentary follows the eager young students as they gradually develop skills in an indoor skatepark, and in the classroom.
“One of the things I put in the movie because I thought it was so wonderful, the teacher said, ‘I teach them if you only know a little bit of the answer, go ahead, raise your hand. You learn the rest at the board.’ I thought that’s so brilliant, because really what these women are doing is teaching these kids, these girls, to raise their hand,” Dysinger comments. “It’s like the first act of courage as a woman in that kind of culture is to say, ‘Excuse me, I know the answer. I have an idea, I think this is what we should do.’”
Attending the school also reveals a much bigger world to the girls than they would experience confined to the home.
“Someone who is very poor will see someone who’s not so poor, someone who’s Sunni sees someone who’s Shia,” the director observes. “They get to witness other kinds of families, other kinds of lives which they wouldn’t normally get to do because it’s a very enclosed society.”
Dysinger has spent many years in Afghanistan, getting to know a people who have endured decades of war, beginning in the late 1970s with the Soviet invasion. She directed the 2010 feature Camp Victory, Afghanistan about the dynamics between an Afghan army battalion and the New Jersey National Guard units sent to train them. The idea for a documentary on Skateistan, she says, came from Molly Thompson, who at the time headed documentary films for A+E Networks (she’s now leading the Apple TV+ documentary division).
“It was very clear that to get it right, it had to be an all-female crew,” Dysinger states. As a woman, the director could penetrate the inner sanctum of the Afghan home, where women are removed from view.
“I was constantly crossing this barrier between very serious men being very serious, drinking very serious tea,” she notes, “and walk back [to another part of the dwelling] and there would be a pile of kids, a bunch of women trying to get some food down and grandmother yelling, ‘You’re doing the potatoes wrong.’ It was a huge difference.”
In a sense, Learning to Skateboard has been long in gestation.
“It’s a movie I’ve wanted to make—not the skateboarding part, but the girls part; the skateboarding was extra but effective, it seems. And it was just such a pleasure to be able to get my favorite part of Afghanistan, which is the girls. I just love these kids,” Dysinger gushes. “I just love them so much and it was just so nice to be able to bring them into the world where they’re rarely seen as the people they actually are.”
Coming up with that 10-word title took some cogitating, Dysinger recalls. She says A&E “marketing people” didn’t want Afghanistan in the title, but that was not the only obstacle to picking what seemed the right name for the film.
“I knew that a lot of times you make these movies and people expect they’re going to see, ‘This girl was raped by her father and now has twins and can’t get a visa and she’s on the streets.’ They’re used to that desperate nightmare scenario about young women in these countries,” she comments. “I really wanted it to be lighthearted. I wanted people to understand that it was going to be kind of about skateboarding, kind of about a war zone, but not really. I finally just gave up and said, ‘I [want] to call it A Girl’s Guide to Skateboarding in Afghanistan.’ Nobody would let me do it. Then I settled on Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), because I thought you would understand the structure you are going to see, which is where I have them teach you how to skateboard and you’d know it was about education.”
The title has proven memorable, but most importantly so has the content. Learning to Skateboard won the IDA Award for Best Documentary Short before going on to earn its Academy Award nomination. For the director, it represents a return to the Oscar fold.
“I got a Student Academy Award in 1977 for a narrative film that I directed when I was a junior in college,” Dysinger shares. “Frank Capra handed it to me and kissed me on the cheek and said, ‘Gosh, I wish I’d made that movie.’”
She sees the nomination as a kind of tribute to the subjects of her film.
“I feel all that fighting I’ve done [as a woman filmmaker] is sort of the theme of the movie as well,” Dysinger tells Deadline. “It’s like my love story to these irrepressible young girls who are given so little and have to fight so hard for everything but are so funny and brave.”