Back in 2009, a group of Englishmen armed with skateboards and video cameras decided that Burma would be a great spot to visit. Why? You will have to read on to find out, but this urge to travel to a country that is more famous for political stances and Theravada Buddhism than our beloved four wheeled culture is commendable to say the least. We hooked up with Hotknees filmer James Holman, Alex ‘Pas’ Pasquini and Etnies rider Ali Drummond to discuss why Burma was the country of choice to visit on skateboards in this month’s travel feature.
WATCH THE VIDEO DOCUMENTARY OF THEIR TRIP HERE:
What made you all decide to go to Burma?
James – We had just finished up getting Storyboards a deal, which took almost a whole year get broadcast after shooting it in 2008 and we were looking for our next project. I wanted to move away from core action sports and do something different. Ali’s a real good friend and we were catching up one day and he mentioned this Burma trip which sounded awesome, so let’s go along for the ride and see what happens. It’s the least planned trip / production we’ve ever done!
Ali – I have always had an interest in Myanmar after watching a documentary about the place when I was younger. Deciding to study Burmese Language at University with the possibility of a year in the country meant that I was eager to check it out before I committed to going there for a whole year. I decided not to go previously when I was on my gap year as I didn’t believe tourists should be funding the government in anyway what so ever. I have since changed my opinion on tourism and believe that tourists should go, but invest in local people and business when they do.
Pas – When James first approached me with this idea I was more than a little bit hesitant and knowing relatively little about the country I naturally assumed the worst. For a start, hearing that journalists were banned from the country didn’t exactly put me at ease! I guess you could say there was an inherent risk right from the start that made us all a little uneasy. But after talking with Ali who shed light on the practicality of life out there and straightened out a few myths I soon came around. It just seemed like such a ridiculous idea it had to work and an amazing chance to do and make something utterly different from what we’re used to making.
There’s obviously a lot of negative press and for good reason, it ranks up there with North Korea in terms of gnarly places to go, what was it actually like?
James – Well yeah. Ali can throw all the statistics at you about how gnarly it can be there, child soldiers, human rights abuses etc. I think day to day life in the cities of places like Yangon and Mandalay is vastly different from life in the more remote ethnic communities. I think that’s one of the great things about the film and it’s something that organisations such as the US Campaign for Burma have commented on, that this is a more positive take and look at life there.
Ali – Maybe it does rank up there with North Korea as places to go. Personally I don’t think so and I don’t like those comparisons because it allows for attitudes which make people respond to your statement that your going to Myanmar, with ‘Ha ha you’ll get shot!’ and ‘Can you even go there?’. It immediately makes people write of Myanmar as a place to avoid. When actually we need to be educating people on what Myanmar is really like so that progress and change for the better can take place, however small. You can’t act on something if you don’t already know about it. To put Myanmar in context one has to remember that it could be one of the most prosperous countries in South-East Asia. It has an absolute abundance of natural resources such as oil, gas, teak and jade. The desperate poverty that you see when you go there doesn’t have to be. People don’t need to be dying from easily curable diseases. Go there as a tourist, stick to the same trail and you won’t see much in terms of negativity except for a desperately poor country that doesn’t need to be. What you will see is a load of beautiful scenery and lots of encounters with extremely friendly people. It’s not uncommon for people to come away from a trip to Myanmar thinking, ‘Yeah that place wasn’t so bad, people were smiling all the time, everyone seemed happy, I don’t know what all the fuss is about’. Well there rightly is a lot fuss and you won’t find the reason behind all of it from a trip to Bagan or Inle Lake. All one needs to do is take a short mo-ped ride out of one of the small towns around Mandalay and you might well come across people in chains digging up the road and officials with whips. Forced labor happens in Myanmar everyday but generally not in the places the government will let you access easily, if at all. You can still find it though if you stray only a little off the path. However incomplete this film may be, I hope we will at least be able to show people a side of Myanmar they didn’t already know about.
Pas – As far as our own experience goes, we learned whilst out there that tourists have it easy. So long as you don’t do something idiotic like publically protesting against the government, you’re going to be safe, very safe in fact since crimes against foreigners are super rare. As Ali mentioned this can give you a somewhat skewed perspective on what life is really like for the Burmese people, something that we hoped we’d at least touch on in the documentary.
You refer to the film as ‘cross-genre’, how did you achieve a balance between the skateboarding and political aspects?
James – I think that, in my opinion anyway, it moves quite seamlessly between the two. I think the key to that is the set-up right at the beginning with the archive footage from some of the protests and events that have happened and then introducing us as three skateboarders. Right from the go, you’ve got this juxtaposition of the two that makes you, as viewer, aware that you’re going to be moving between the two.
Ali – The original edit was way more political. One of the reasons we cut most of that out is because it makes for a more interesting piece to be focused on something not already touched upon by outside media.
Pas – For the skate side we decided we’d approached the filming in the fashion that is typical of any skate trip. We’d search high and low for spots in the most ridiculous places and get as much footage in the bag as possible. But you can’t visit a country like Burma and not touch on the politics of the country, it’s impossible since it dramatically effects everything you do. So we made sure we documented everything about our daily experiences and kept personal journals about our time there to inform our decision making when scripting the narration and editing the film in to a watchable piece.
This was filmed back in the summer of 2009, why has it taken so long to release and what have you been up to since?
James – Yeah, we got back into the UK in late July ’09 and had this other project to do, Bangkok Bangers, and then I went to Australia for 6 months! Apart from that Ali was still in Burma and we didn’t want to release this and jeopardise his position in the country so we had to wait until he was done there.
Ali – I have just finished a year of study in Myanmar and releasing the film previously could of been detrimental to my time there. Of course, it would probably have been fine but you never know.
Pas – I think it’s fair to say myself and James have been itching to release this for a good year or so but due to quite real concerns with Ali still being in the country we had to hold it back. This was both frustrating and beneficial in equal measure. The most beneficial aspect being time to reflect on our experience which led to many redrafts, something we couldn’t have done had we released it as early as we had planned.
What’s your favourite memory from the trip?
James – Man, there are so many, from adopting a street kid called ‘Crazy Joe’ during our time in Yangon and taking him to see Terminator 4 to teaching English in the school. That is probably mine actually. I really enjoyed that, it’s something I never thought I’d have the chance to do and playing football with the kids everyday on the roof of the school was awesome. I’m really proud to have gone to Burma and have done what we’ve done. Without sounding super pretentious, it’s not something many people get to do or would want to do!
Ali – Skateboarding with all the locals in Yangon. I have since got to hang out with those guys for the best part of 7 months and they have become close friends. I have so much respect for them. They can’t buy quality skateboards in their country and the only place they do have to skate will eat your board like its a bacon sandwich. Yet despite all this they have the same passion and admiration for skateboarding as anyone else I’ve met and they do it all with a smile on their face. True overcomer’s of adversity.
Pas – Very hard to pinpoint. Skating with the locals and skating anywhere in public and having huge crowds of people just stop what they were doing and watch us was a surreal experience. Riding bikes through Mandalay each day on the way to the school to teach. All the friendly people we met and just the whole act of going out there and filming everyday trying to blag a documentary of our experience was amazing!
So, what do you guys have planned next?
James – Well, I’ve since moved to New Zealand! I’ve been on the filming scene over there but I think I’d like to be back here before the end of the year working on something else. Ali, Pas and me, as a result of his contacts and talking to organisations such as the Campaign for Burma have been thinking about another Burma based project, which I’d love to do.
Ali – The skate park in Yangon is about to be turned in to a car park would you believe! There will literally be no where for everyone to go. I’d be keen to contact some NGO’s to try and get some funding to buy a small piece of land and build a half decent skate park. There are real possibilities for making things happen in Myanmar and this is something I’d be keen to get involved with. If anyone can help out, please hit me up!
Pas – In the short term, should be off to Copenhagen again for the CPH Pro in June to film for Monster Energy which is going to be sick. Longer term, I’m working full time at a media company in Surrey specialising mainly in corporate videos which is a big step away from what I’m used to but an incredible learning experience!
Any shout outs or final comments?
Ali – Thanks to all the skateboards of Myanmar for keeping skateboarding what it is truly about. Having fun with your friends!
Pas – Just a massive thanks to anyone that watches this doc and the people of Burma that made this possible.
James – I’d like to thank everyone that supported this, from the Democratic Voice of Burma and people like John Sanlin to you guys at Crossfire that will help spread the word about the film! Hope you guys are into it! Also one more thing that needs to be noted, massive shout out to Steven Perks, this is certainly an ABD. He must be the first Astro-physicist from Chatham that did a K-Grind tail grab in Burma… someone contact Guinness World Records!