Professional skateboarding used to be a boy’s club, perhaps best illustrated by a treehouse with a sign belligerently warning “Girls Keep Out!” But skating is fun, and despite the sport’s best efforts to keep them out, some women found their way in. Often, this meant building a parallel “club” with other women, focusing on cooperation and building each other up more than fighting each other for the top prizes. Jessica Edwards’ Skate Dreams, the first feature-length documentary devoted to women in skateboarding, celebrates both the early pioneers of the sport and the young women who are excelling in it today.
Cara-Beth Burnside was competing against male skateboarders in the 1980s, when there were few to no competitions for women. Even when women did compete, they got subpar prize money and little exposure on either television or skate magazines (to the point where the women skaters once boycotted the X-Games), making it difficult for them to attract endorsement offers and earn a living. Burnside fought for her place in the sport, but she also realized that she needed to support other women skaters if the sport were to have an integrated future.
Nora Vasconcellos’ role model growing up was Reggie Rockets, a skateboarding cartoon character, because finding any depiction of women skaters was still a rarity. The Kardashians, however, were featured everywhere, and (rather oddly in retrospect) were considered appropriate role models for young girls. She persisted in skating, however, and she and a lot of other women (like Mimi Koop, a military brat who spent a lot of time on her skateboard because there was so little to do when her father was stationed in Cuba) benefited hugely from the growth of social media. New technology made it easier for women to film and publish video of themselves skating, bypassing the male-dominated commercial outlets, while social media networks made it easier for women skaters to find each other. The latter effort was also aided, in 2003, by Lisa Whitaker’s founding of the Girls Skate Network. In its current form, it’s a web site that offers news, videos, interviews, event listings, and a blog, all centered on women in skateboarding.
Today, women from all over the world take part in skateboarding, and both men and women compete in the sport in the Olympics. One of the most moving stories in Skate Dreams is that of Kouv “Tin” Chanssangva, who grew up poor and abused in Phnom Penh, but found a way out through the NGO Skateistan. Now she works there, as an instructor and general manager of the skate park, showing infinite patience as she leads young girls through their first trip down a halfpipe.
Any self-respecting skateboard doc needs both excellent action photography and a killer soundtrack, and fortunately Skate Dreams has both: the former courtesy of Jenni Morello, who has an extensive resume in both television and film work, the latter thanks to Brujas, Ariana Gil, and Sarah Snider. Of course, great footage does not a movie make—it has to be edited into shape, and Maya Tippet does the honors in Skate Dreams.
If Skate Dreams sometimes feels more like a collage than a traditionally-organized documentary, that may be exactly what the filmmakers intended. This is a doc about skateboarding, after all, and those folks like to play by their own rules. Plus, since it’s about an outsider group forming their own community while finding their way into the mainstream, it makes sense for it to assume a structure that allows many voices to tell the specific reality of their own experiences. | Sarah Boslaugh
Skate Dreams is available for home viewing in the United States as part of the 25th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs from 12 pm ET on April 7, 2022, through 11:59 pm ET on April 10, 2022. There’s also a Q & A with director Jessica Edwards available on the festival web site. Further information about Full Frame 2022 is available through the festival web site, and more information about Skate Dreams is available from the Film First web site.