Filmmaker James Holman explains why he went back to Burma to make follow-up documentary Youth of Yangon about the embryonic skate scene.

Filmmaker James Holman explains why he went back to Burma to make follow-up documentary Youth of Yangon about the embryonic skate scene.

James Holman is a shooting director and editor based in New Zealand. Through his company Hot Knees Media, with skate film G Alex Pasquini, he works on projects all over the world like the epic on-location documentary Born To Run, about super-marathon runners.

Im 2009, James travelled to Burma with UK skater and Burmese aficionado Ali Drummond to make Altered Focus: Burma, a documentary about a skate trip through Yangon and Mandalay and the discoveries, both personal and political, made along the way.

But that wasn’t the end of the journey. In 2012 the transplants headed back to Burma to make a second documentary and in May 2013 they dropped Youth of Yangon – a twelve-minute short film that documents the emerging skateboarding community in Myanmar and the struggles they face pursuing their passion. Inspired by the rigorous storytelling and committed skaters, we caught up with James to find out what keeps drawing him back to this tumultuous country and what we can expect to see from the team next.

Youth of Yangon is a short film meeting and following the lives of the small group of skateboarders that exist in Yangon, Myanmar. We first discovered these guys in our first film Altered Focus: Burma which was filmed in 2009 but wasn’t released until two years later. Ever since that time we wanted to go back and document their story because no one knew that Myanmar (Burma) had skateboarders, let alone a skatepark. This was a country that until very recently was incredibly isolated from the rest of the world – from an outright media ban when we travelled there in 2009 to Lonely Planet Best in Travel 2012!

We made the film because I felt like we needed to tell their story after touching on their existence in 2009. These skateboarders existed with such little contact with the rest of skateboarding and skateboard media and were doing it for the passion and the love. No dreams, rightly or wrongly of getting sponsored, just for the pure love of skateboarding. I thought it would be a very interesting story to the rest of the skateboard community, the lack of good boards and equipment, the lack of support, the makeshift skatepark outside a mall and the six hour-plus journey to the military’s established capital, Naypyidaw, where the only concrete skatepark is.

I think the impact it has had for the skateboarders over there has already been pretty great. We were invited back to Yangon in February of this year by the British Council and we screened the first cut of the film for a week in Pansodan Art Gallery. There were pretty full screenings every week and a lot of national press, embassy staff and government officials. It was great to see the skateboarders there embrace the spotlight, taking interviews and taking charge of their future. It has got to the point now where they have established the Myanmar Skate Association (MSA), which from next year should be recognised as an official organisation allowing them to apply for a skatepark to be built in Yangon. It was pretty touching having these guys come up to Ali Drummond (producer on both films) thanking us for making the film. I can’t wait to see where they take the future of skateboarding there.

Current Landscape?
The skateboard scene there is thriving. Going back in February a few months after shooting there were already new skateboarders popping up, it’s a scene that is developing and incredibly supportive of new skateboarders. I feel like it is still young and there is no rivalry or different crews, they do these big trips as one group to places like Naypyidaw and I just saw recently they are travelling around doing demos! I mean that in itself is pretty incredible.

Ali Drummond was the main driver behind getting Youth of Yangon off the ground. He is a graduate in South East Asian Studies in London and since 2009 has been learning Burmese and travelling there a lot, hanging out with and skating with the guys. It was awesome to see him speaking fluent Burmese and he’s the one off camera asking the questions and understanding the responses (most of the time!) for us. We also had Henry Kingsford, a British skateboard photographer who runs Grey Magazine documenting the film and putting together an article for the mag. He also came back out in February with the film twinned with an exhibition of portraits of the skateboarders. Ali is now back over there studying Burmese and I think he’s pretty keen on getting a job in translation with an organisation there. We also had a friend of mine from Queenstown, New Zealand, who works in film and television, Toby Mills, who came and worked as production assistant on the project. I’m working on another skateboard documentary Take a Long Line in Australia looking at the evolution of the sport and focusing on the hopes and dreams of three/four vert and bowl kids that are hoping to make a career out of their passion. Quite the contrast to Youth of Yangon!

Call To Action?
People can get involved and show support by watching Youth of Yangon on the Hot Knees vimeo channel – it’s only $1 and you can watch the first film, the opening of the new film and more for free! You can stay up to date with Youth of Yangon and future projects on our facebook.

The challenges of making this were definitely the cost and the time. It was a fully self-funded project in all regards. Ali, Toby, Henry and myself in terms of time, flights, production, post-production, not to mention the costs of licensing music. NO ONE wants to buy or license content anymore, unless it’s some shit-house reality show featuring a bunch of fuckwits and despicable humans. I think it’s worth mentioning that we are selling it because of the enormous cost in terms of production but if that doesn’t work out maybe next year it will go out for free at some point.

I’m pretty stoked we managed to get Bombazine Black and Alt-J licensed for this, however, as I think they compliment the film’s look and feel so well. We waited three years to get this done, trying to find a time when we were both free was difficult not to mention the fact that Ali lives in the UK and I live in New Zealand, there were many late night/early morning Skype sessions. When the old skatepark got torn down late in November 2011 Ali and myself agreed that whatever happened we would go and do this in 2012 and it finally happened in September/October 2012.

The inspiration for this project were the discovery of these guys in 2009 and seeing the boards and facilities that they lacked but the passion to do it anyway. I thought that was amazing. The fact they continued and carried on for all those years afterwards as well incredible and we just felt their story needed to be told. Other than that, I took some inspiration from the Bones Brigade: An Autobiography in terms of the way it was edited. I loved those long black spaces particularly at the beginning of the film.

What’s next? I hope we are able to go out there next year and shoot a doco on a skatepark being built. I think that would be awesome, three films that all exist on their own but all linked together from discovering skateboarding, telling their story and the future/continued development of it. Other than that I’m working on Take a Long Line as mentioned above.

You can buy and watch Youth of Yangon on Vimeo.