The Documentary Short Subject nominee discusses the male gaze and how important it was for the audience to get to know her subjects.
Carol Dysinger’s Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) could win Best Documentary Short this year because she allows us to get to know the women in her documentary in such an intimate way. Young girls living in Kabul don’t have the same freedom as young boys, so they have to do everything behind closed doors. Learning How to Skateboard is an earnest, simply made film that manages to seize that moment between being a young girl and becoming a woman.
Dysinger doesn’t just focus on girls learning about a new sport. She takes us inside the classroom, where young girls are afraid to speak in a safe setting and don’t feel like they have a right to go outside and play. They hide their faces, giggle to themselves, and don’t think they have a right to speak up, even when they are in a safe environment with their teacher and friends.
Dysinger held back from interacting with the girls to make sure she filmed genuine interactions, and there is such freedom with how they move their bodies and enjoy learning. When we do get to see the girls skating, it feels like a dream. When they learn to keep picking themselves up, they aren’t afraid to fall.
Awards Daily: I love your nomination.
Carol Dysinger: It’s crazy, isn’t it?
AD: At the very top of the film, there are a lot of men staring at us from the street, right into the camera. The male gaze is very present from the very beginning. Did you want to put us in a woman’s shoes right from the very top?
CD: I did, because I’ve been filming in Afghanistan for 15 years, and I wanted to get across the nature and reason for girls not skateboarding outside. It’s a very particular kind of danger. I wanted to make sure I was setting a lesser audience up with that discomfort. It’s cultural. It’s not about bombs and bullets. If you were walking down the street with a man or with your head covered, it’s different than if you’re alone. It’s a man’s world out there.
CD: I wanted to establish that without any bombs, you know. I wanted people to understand that they’re not behind walls and banging to get out and nobody will let them out. Being sequestered is actually more fun for them together, even though they would like to be outside together.
AD: How did you find out about Skateistan? This is such a unique story, and the way that you introduce us to it as a lesson is so novel. How did you discover this?
CD: Orlando von Einseidel made a documentary about its beginnings, and it played the festival circuit when my first film was playing the circuit at the same time. Camp Victory, Afghanistan was on the circuit in 2010, but I heard about it every time after that when I went to Afghanistan. People in Kabul knew about it and some boys do skate outside, but girls don’t. Sometimes you’ll see a kid zoom by on a skateboard. I’ve never lived in Afghanistan, but I had been in and out filming but was often invited to the women’s side of the house. I always loved these girls. They were always so unpretentious and funny and brave and kind. But you don’t feel them being oppressed. It reminded me a lot of me and my cousins. I’m from a very large Italian immigrant family, and every time we would get together, it would be a little pond of children that would run around. The girls would get called in and the boys would run around. They reminded me of a different era of kids in a way. But I knew I couldn’t get them on film. When they called me, I knew exactly how do it. The thing was that I didn’t want to make a movie about girls in Afghanistan.
CD: The girls in any culture can vary from block to block, county to county. I just wanted you to meet them and see how open and free they are without a lot of baggage. I came up with this idea that it’s them teaching you how to skateboard, because they are generous girls and are more than happy to teach you anything. I didn’t want to do something about a big family.
AD: And when you interview all the young girls and the teachers, I get a real sense that there are so many different stories.
CD: Yeah, I know.
AD: I love how you show us the parents of the girls and the teachers. Some of my favorite moments are when they tell us that they didn’t have an opportunity to learn, and the pride that comes across there is beautiful. How important was it to show you include those women in the film?
CD: I wanted you to meet them where they live, and that’s with their families. On the floor in the main room eating, sleeping — all together. Family life is very important there. It’s a basic unit that we have left behind some 150 years ago. There’s the family. I did want to show the different levels of the women. Fatima managed to get an education. I love her so much. Trina, who won’t show her face, went to college, but she’d rather not be shown. There are these educated women who are poor that move me so much, and like so many women of my generation have these mothers that are trying to prepare you for a future that they can’t even imagine. They want you to have it, but they aren’t sure what it’s going to be. They want a future for you, of some kind, and that’s through education.
AD: Yeah, that was one of my favorite parts. It really broke my heart.
CD: There are certainly horrible family situations — male dominated horror shows — just like in any country. And, let’s face it, if anyone’s going to let a Western film crew into their house, they are going to be open-minded. That’s why I didn’t want to present this as a portrait of Afghan girlhood and their context, because I can’t get that. That’s not for me to do — that’s for an Afghan filmmaker to do. I wanted to stand between my country and the country that I love that is not my country. I wanted to give my country a better view of what I got to see from being so familiar with it. I thought I was modest in my goals, and that’s why I wanted you to meet them in full color without being curtailed by men or fear.
AD: The simplicity with how you focus on the people is what makes it so successful.
CD: Thank you.
AD: Was there ever a temptation to make this as a feature instead of a short?
CD: I don’t think the structure would’ve lasted much longer than 40 minutes. I was a documentary editor for many years, and there are many that get stretched by professional ambitions that they really shouldn’t have. It’s hard to make a feature. You have to film for a long time. I’ve made two: Camp Victory and One Bullet, which I am still working on. Both of them took me over five years, partly because if you’re getting into a culture that isn’t yours and be there enough to disappear, it takes a long time. I think I couldn’t have done what I wanted to do and get to know them in their life… I don’t think it would’ve lasted. You would’ve been impatient for something to happen.
AD: There’s a quote in the film where one of the girls says, “I don’t want to grow up, so I can’t skate forever.”
AD: That hit me so hard, because it gives us a small indication of the resilience of children. What was it like to work with subjects so young?
CD: I have to say that what I loved about that line was that it’s what every girl feels in the whole world. For her, the delineation was very clear because of her culture. It may be different for girls now. For my generation and the ones I know well, it’s the moments before your breasts pop in. It’s the moment before everyone is staring at your chest. You’re not drawing the male gaze in that particular way. You don’t want it to come so you can stay young and free, and then the hormone bomb hits and you want to grow up immediately and you want to marry Cameron Crowe. There is that point in life where you just want to play flashlight tag with your friends and not suddenly become a piece of property that needs to be protected. It’s a horrible moment in your life, no matter where you’re from. There it’s more horrible than others because it’s so strict, but they have different ramifications.
AD: Was working with the kids difficult at all?
CD: I knew they wouldn’t be natural in front of me. Not just because I’m a Westerner, but because I’m an elder. They would’ve been polite and respectful, which is the last thing I wanted. I had an all-woman crew.
CD: Two of the five were Afghan. One was a student of mine — a budding cinematographer, Zama Wahdat. Her family left Afghanistan when she was three. She speaks Dari and she knows the culture. She came over as second unit and knows the crew. I told her to ask the girls what her childhood might have been like had you not left. You know kids. They want to be generous. They want to be valuable. She had them draw pictures for her and showed her how to put on her headscarf properly. I had her really be their person, and I hung out with the teachers. We shot the shit! (laughs)
CD: I played with the kids and I fell down and it was funny. The cinematographer, Lisa Rinzler, and I went to film school together, and I ran into her at a party and asked her if she wanted to go to Afghanistan. She told me yes, and I said, “I hope you mean it!” Thank God, because she did such an incredible job. We didn’t have a lot of time. She has to get one great shot every time, and it takes a long time to get that discipline. So we, along with a producer, kind of hung back with the teachers. We tried to make it comfortable for everybody. No men were allowed in, so it was an all-woman thing.
AD: I read that you’re working on a trilogy of films that capture experiences in Afghanistan. What can you tell me about what you’re working on next?
CD: Well, the first part of the trilogy is the film I mentioned: Camp Victory, Afghanistan is about the training of the Afghan National Army by the New Jersey National Guard. A great friendship between an American colonel and an Afghan general. People call it a bromance. That was sort of the first part. The next part is the film I’m finishing now called One Bullet and it dovetails with the other one. One of the generals I followed in Camp Victory got to investigate an Afghan boy who was shot by an unidentified nighttime convoy. They fired a warning shot and hit this kid.
CD: I filmed that entire investigation and when Camp Victory was done, I went back and found the kid’s family. The second one is from the perspective of a fairly conservative family. I got to be friends with the mother and it’s the nightmare scenario: fourth wife, kids, no education. When I came into her house, I found out the boy had died, and she and I made a connection. I basically followed her family through her eyes for six years. One bullet did all this.