"I went out to Kabul early on to get a sense of how things run at the school, to meet the girls and some of their families and to talk to their staff on the ground."
Director Carol Dysinger & Producer Elena Andreicheva
World premiere Tribeca Film Festival 2019
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The story of young Afghan girls learning to read, write - and skateboard - in Kabul.

Hello Carol & Elena Congratulations on Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl) being shortlisted for the BAFTA British Animation 2020 award, what does it mean to you to get this type of recognition for your film?

Carol: The Brits involved were so pivotal and such an incredible crew, but they could not participate in the U.S. awards. It is great to see the film recognized where it was born and raised, by the people who saw it through.   They made the original Skateistan short which is the only reason this film got made.

Elena: It feels great for the film to be recognised here in the UK. So far, we've had a wonderful reaction to the film in the US, but as so many of us involved are Brits - including the company, Grain Media, who housed the production - it's rather nice to bring it home, too.

You had your World Premiere at this years Tribeca Film Festival, which won Best Documentary Short, what went through your head when you found out you won?

C: It was unbelievable.  I have been making movies in Afghanistan since 2005, and there has always been the question "How are you going to get past the audiences Afghan Fatigue?   Perhaps Afghanistan is more of a concern these days.   The Tribeca award was the first time I thought that the girls of Skateistan may have finally overcome that particular challenge!

E: I was actually getting on a plane to fly back to London (where I live) with a very cranky baby. When I finally had a moment to check my phone, I saw a tonne of messages saying we'd won, which significantly improved my day! 

Have you been able to enjoy the attention/process of awards and nominations or have you tried to keep it out of your mind?

E: I think it's impossible to ignore, and it's OK to enjoy it, you just need to acknowledge that so much work goes into all of that and so many films don't get such an amazing platform. But we're extremely grateful because it gets people watching the film and talking about its message. 

Can you tell me a little bit about Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl), what inspired you to want to tell this unique coming-of-age story?

C: All the films I made before have been in the world of men and soldiers. But while making them, I was able to enter the world of women, to see what now man who is not a member of the family could enter.  For years, I have always loved Afghan girls. They are given so little, but are so irrepressible and I could never film them.   But the work Grain did to gain access was the first time I was offered a situation where I could get them on camera.  After all I have been through making films of the tragic,  I was overjoyed to have the chance to make my love letter to the women and girls of Afghanistan, their strength and humor and persistence.

When did you first discover the Skateistan project in Kabul?

E: I had heard about the project over the years, had seen some photos of the girls skating - but really, it only came up on my radar when Grain Media approached me about producing the film. I think I had the same reaction most people have - really?! they teach them to skate?! - but once the novelty of the idea wore off, I was interested to learn what happens next. What's great about the concept behind Skateistan is that skateboarding is a way in for the kids, to get them interested in coming to the project - but what they gain is so much more. They learn to count and to write and I could see immediately the dignity and pride on the girls' faces during their lessons. So I was very excited that we'd have an opportunity to go deeper with this film in showing what the Skateistan project is all about.  

"I won a student academy award for a narrative short when I was 19 which was, let's just say, in the last century."

Was it easy to approach the girls to be part of your documentary?

This was Elena's job. She was on it before me and scouted the school and Grain negotiated with Skateistan to sort out how to film them safely and with permission.   Once we were allowed in the world of the girls, it became easy.  But getting in and clearing it safely was not.

E: We worked closely with Skateistan to get the girls and their families to participate in the film. I went out to Kabul early on to get a sense of how things run at the school, to meet the girls and some of their families and to talk to their staff on the ground. It's always a huge responsibility getting people on board for a film in circumstances like this and we had to trust the advice of the teachers and staff at Skateistan, as they have the relationships with the families and the communities within which they work. Getting them on board first was crucial, and our access built from there.

You had an all-female crew on this film what was this experience like?

The cinematographer was Lisa Rinzler, an experienced cinematographer of both features and documentaries -- we went to film school together many many years ago, so it was like going with a sister.  Out other two crew members were Afghans,  Zamarin Wahdat, second unit photographer among so many other things had left the country at the age of three and had never been back.  Then we hired a young Afghan Film maker Tam Ayani, and trained her to A.C. and to do sound.  Zama had been my student and Tam quickly became one as well.  So it was like a family of Aunts and Nieces.

Zama and Tam made the girls comfortable, and the girls were fascinated by Zama, and thrilled to tell her what her life might have been like if she had not left. I knew the girls would not be easy with me, not because I am an American, but because I am an elder. Elena got on her inline skates with a camera to do some shooting and the girls thought that was hilarious.

So once we were in the women and girls only room with them, teachers and students, it was like the ladies room in high school - sharing, laughing and comfortable.  I loved it.  Now Tam is making films herself in Afghanistan and we are altogether proud of her.

E: It was a great experience, and also quite a novel experience putting a team like that together, which in itself tells you something. I was told many times that it couldn't be done ("there are no sound recordists in Afghanistan!" etc) and yet there are so many talented women out there. Working together still had its ups and downs, of course, as with any team of individuals - but there was also a great female camaraderie.  

Will you continue to make films that have an all-female crew?

E: I have definitely gone in that direction since making the film. I love spending time just with women - maybe because I went to an all girls school - something about that environment makes me feel at ease, and that's a great atmosphere to work in.  

C: I did not go to an all girls school, and coming up when I did, when I was young I was often the only woman on the crew or in the room. It is not like this now, which is wonderful.  But every film requires a different chemistry in the crew.   But this was lovely.

What has been the biggest challenges you faced with Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)?

There were difficulties of course in filming in Afghanistan which, with a medium sized crew (unlike a micro crew), was at times fairly limiting. We couldn't move as freely as we wanted, or just pop out for some GVs / B-roll. But for me, actually one of the biggest challenges was making a film over a few years, in the end - it was a huge challenge to keep the momentum going, to keep schedules aligned, to keep our contributors in Kabul engaged. It felt like a bit of a marathon.

C: She is putting that very lightly.  It was a triathlon. As always, we had to find a structure that would make all the limitations look like aesthetic choices.  But I have been doing that for fifteen years in Afghanistan. For me the biggest challenge was expressing the incredible challenges the girls face without making them look like victims as they are so often portrayed.  To show their joyfulness without undermining the enormous obstacles they face, interior and exterior.

And most of all -- how do you make a skateboarding movie when no one skates very well?  Or can skateboard outside  I knew everyone would expect to see someone doing something amazing on the street.

Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?

C: For story telling.  I was an actor, then a writer. I have done narrative, then documentary. 

How has your style and approach to your films changed since your debut?

C: My debut was so long ago...I won a student Academy Award for a narrative short when I was 19 which was, let's just say, in the last century. The greatest change, was moving from fiction to documentary.  Part of this was because of what was possible for a woman of my generation, but a lot of it was just finding it more fun to explore with a camera the things I did not know, then write up what I thought I did and then execute it. To have to work within the world rather then make it up.

What has been the best advice you have been given?

C: Get really good at the thing you love best.   Not what you wish you had done, but what you love doing in the moment  -- and you will never be bored.

As a filmmaker what advice would you offer fellow writer/director?

Well, the above. You can always change your mind. But don't quit.  These things take a whole lot of not quitting. A WHOLE lot of not quitting.  

And finally, what do you hope people will take away from  Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)?

C:  That no matter what you think of this war, war itself. No matter who you voted for no matter what, we as a people as women can not abandon the civil society of Afghanistan we need to support girls education and healthcare in Afghanistan even if our governments don't.  We can not screw up the end game again as we did in the 90s.  I hope they look at these girls, and know they are worth our care.

E: I hope they find humour in it, and that it sticks with them. I've worked on lots of very hard-to-watch films, because of the subject matter, and with this film Carol has managed to inject so much heart and nuance and humour into what could have been a terribly grim watch. I hope people's expectations of what girls in Kabul get up to are a little… challenged.  

Interview original published ahead of BAFTA 2020.