An Intimate Portrait of an Unlikely Indian Skateboarding Star
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Academy director Sasha Rainbow tells the story of making Kamali - her Bafta-nominated short profiling one girl as she pursues her passion
The 2020 Bafta shortlists came under fire this week for their lack of diversity, on both ethnicity and gender fronts, with all 20 acting nominations given to white performers and no women shortlisted for best director. But if there’s a silver lining to be found, things aren’t quite so dispiriting in the juried categories – outstanding British debut, British short film, British short animation and the EE rising star award all saw more women and people of colour represented, with four of the five best short film nominees are directed by women (Azaar by Myriam Raja, Kamali by Sasha Rainbow, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone [If You’re a Girl] by Carol Dysinger and The Trap by Lena Headey).
Sasha Rainbow is part of that silver lining. Check out the Academy-represented director’s reel if you’ve never seen her work. It’s brimming with attitude and colour in the form of music videos and branded content. Her short documentary Kamali, about a seven-year-old Indian girl breaking the gender stereotypes of her community through skateboarding, is already a certified winner. In its festival run it picked up Best Short Documentary at Raindance, Atlanta Film Festival 2019 and Best Director at The Mumbai International Short Film Festival, among many other accolades.
As she keeps her fingers crossed for the Baftas in February, LBB’s Alex Reeves took some time with Sasha to learn more about the film that’s earning her all this glory.
LBB> I read that you were interested in the female skateboarding movement generally when you saw a picture of Kamali. What was it about that moment that set you off on this journey?
Sasha> At the time, I was a music video director and wanted to get into narrative after spending a year and a half in Paris writing about and researching the plight of the Roma in Europe. I knew it was unlikely anyone would give me a budget for such a serious film with the reel I had, so I concocted a plan to try and fund some documentaries through music videos I'd pitch on, which led me to one of the biggest e-waste dumps in the world for Placebo. That resulted in a short doc Kofi and Lartey, and a music video called Alpha Female for the Wild Beasts, about the burgeoning female skateboarding movement in India. I had initially intended to do short doc about the female skateboarding movement in general, but when Kamali and her mother stayed with us I got to know them and their story and knew I had to come back and share it, that it represented much more than skateboarding, that in order to talk about the future we need to confront the past.
LBB> How did you track Kamali down from just a picture?
Sasha> I still remember refusing to give up the search for Kamali while we were on the ground in India shooting the music video. As you can imagine, the skate scene there is quite small, and someone knew Kamali's uncle, who is an incredible surfer and a huge influence in her life. Once we found him, we got her mother on the phone and explained our video project. She agreed to leave the village with Kamali, and for the first time they visited the big city of Bangalore, but I had no idea what a journey they would lead me on!
LBB> Early on, what were you trying to achieve or reveal with the film and how did this change as you got to know Kamali and her mother Suganthi?
Sasha> Because we had already met Kamali and her mother before we arrived at their village, I had an idea of the tensions and conflicts they were facing that I wanted to delve into. Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing was a huge inspiration for me, and I wanted to paint a picture of the larger community and its influence on Suganthi and Kamali's lives. When we got there everyone told us what they thought we wanted to hear, so we were forced into a much more intimate film about Kamali and her family, which I think was for the best.
LBB> How did you find the right balance between the emotional story and the impulse to just make a cool skate film about Kamali? You must have cut a lot of good footage of her showing off her skills!
Sasha> It was never really going to be a film about skateboarding, it was always going to be a film about generational and cyclical change, a subject I'm very interested in as a first generation New Zealander whose family went through a lot to pave a path that I now walk. Needless to say, though, I was actually concerned about the lack of skateboarding for a while as the skatepark was so small, it was hard to get a huge amount of visual variety out of the space. But as usual documentaries are filled with happy accidents and this helped us to form the arc of the film around the parallels of Kamali's journey to learn to skateboard and her mother's own journey of reflection and self-empowerment on her pilgrimage.
LBB> What have been the most interesting insights people have had about the film with regard to women and girls in society?
Sasha> Stephen Fry's take on the film was great - "Tender, surprising. Apparently simple, but in truth resonant and complex."
LBB> Has people's reaction to the film changed how you think about it or the subject at all?
Sasha> My grandmother is a radical feminist, so I've always been conscious of the female experience. If it's changed anything, it's how I view myself and the work I make. It's prompted me to look at my own family story, and I am currently writing a twisted fictional black comedy noir about a young woman returning to New Zealand after years abroad.
LBB> How has the film affected Kamali and Suganthi since people started seeing it and it's been getting attention?
Sasha> Suganthi said that hearing the audience clap in Mumbai was the proudest moment in her life. I think it’s the first time she felt supported, like she wasn’t alone in her ideas. A huge part of the impact, which I tried to address in the film, has been the change of attitude in their village. Now parents are allowing and even encouraging their kids to skate, and Kamali is teaching other little girls. This is a huge shift, and I know as a community they are very proud of Kamali and now look at Suganthi in a new, more positive light. We’re currently trying to find support to build a bigger skatepark in the village so that their influence can continue to grow.