Who says you can’t do what you love and make a difference at the same time?
by James Holman
For as long as can remember, my only desire has been to work on creative projects that inspire. I gravitated toward doing something different than the traditional trajectory of ‘school, college, 9-5, wife, kids, death’ from a very young age. It was never going to be satisfying for me to live in the status quo.
For this reason, I fell in love with skateboarding. Skateboarding brought me my first camera, my first job and allowed me to travel the world. As much as I try to diversify, I always come back to it, and I believe I always will. I’ve always been fascinated by skateboarding and as all skateboarders will attest, when we hear the faintest ‘pop’ from the furthest distance away, you know instantly that sound is a skateboarder. I love that. I love looking at architecture and interpreting it differently, looking at a marble ledge or even just a simple curb and imagining how that can be used differently to the intended design.
To clarify, I have never been a great skateboarder but that never ceased my fascination. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, envious of those who could land the tricks I never would, I picked up my camera and started filming. I never received a formal education in media production at a university, but I picked up the camera and learned by doing, looking online and learning from friends. Skateboarding would be the vessel transporting me to my greater purpose. It began with a small cable show in the U.K., just a few friends filming each other riding local parks, which led to opportunities to go to big European skate contests and working with brands like Vans. I will always look back at this time as the ‘glory days,’ my friends and I still talk about now.
As much as skateboarding took me where I wanted to go, I had this desire to do something different. I can think of one situation in particular that lead me to filmmaking. It was a conversation with my father, successful in business, who once told me, during a spell where I was severely lacking in work, that he wasn’t happy going to work everyday, but he had to do it. I always struggled with that idea. Why would you do something you weren’t happy doing? After that moment, I decided filming was the only thing I wanted to do. I wanted the opportunity to travel the world and tell stories, real stories.
“Skateboarding brought me my first camera, my first job and allowed me to travel the world.”
I wanted a way to combine skateboarding with content that was socially aware and conscious. I wanted to tell a story that had the common thread of a love of skateboarding with another culture that was fascinating to me but that I knew nothing about. I was searching for a way to show people that we are all more alike than we are different. Thus, “Altered Focus: Burma” was born. (http://vimeo.com/19780095)
In 2009, together with long term collaborator, Alex Pasquini and sponsored skateboarder and good friend Ali Drummond, we travelled into the unknown, much against our friends, family and foreign office advice at the time. This changed everything for me and for the first time, I could understand how it was possible to have an impact on people even with a ‘no budget’ production.
Nothing had ever come out of Burma that wasn’t related to human rights abuse, the atrocities that have taken place there. Tourists simply didn’t travel there. After a month spent between Yangon and Mandalay, much to our amazement, we discovered an old skate park and even a small skateboarding scene. The result was a short lm that got a lot of press on CNN, the BBC, Washington Post and others, including a Vimeo Staff Pick and an award at the International Skateboard Film Festival presented by one of our idols Geoff Rowley. It was received well, because it was something totally outside of the expected, something positive on Burma and something involving youth.
What was the reality of filming in Burma at that time? We were followed and found ourselves in seemingly sketchy situations but nothing ever happened. We had been overly paranoid. Instead of being scared, we opened ourselves up to the culture and found the people were very warm, the most friendly I had ever met and they totally embraced foreigners. My favorite experience was when we were filming in Mandalay, and three guys on scooters came up to us out of nowhere and, intrigued by what we were doing, insisted on picking us up from our guest house and taking us for dinner later that night.
Two out of the three of us were not into this proposal — three young guys on scooters in Mandalay ‘definitely had to be Junta connected,’ so this was not a good idea. Needless to say, they picked us up at our guesthouse, and we each jumped in the back. After what seemed like forever driving out of Mandalay, where there were no street lights, no road lights, nothing but empty bumpy roads and vegetation, I remember us all looking at each and thinking ‘this was it.’ We would be one of those stories on the news, ‘Three naive tourists etc.’ About one minute from total freak out, some lights and a golf course appeared. We were driven into what seemed like an exclusive resort and were treated to the best banquet anyone could imagine and plenty of beer. Conversations followed about Manchester United, and it was pretty magical. We were later driven back to the guesthouse and left with a wonderful experience but also a sense of guilt that we had been so fearful of a scenario that just didn’t happen.
For over three years, I wanted to go back and tell the story of the skateboarders we discovered. Burma, now renamed Myanmar, was changing rapidly with a somewhat democratically elected government and open to tourists. In a world where so much has already been done, I wanted to get this story out on these guys there. They existed almost entirely on their own, isolated from contact with mainstream skateboarding but doing it for the love. They shared the same struggles all skateboarders have, and I thought that people could relate so well to it and be interested in this undocumented scene. The result was “Youth of Yangon” filmed in 2013/14, once again teaming up with Ali Drummond. (http://vimeo.com/58578845)
Both of these projects were self-financed. I believe it’s important to have passion projects and commit to something you believe in. Sure it might not work out, but by following your passions, I think you give back to communities or groups and share something special that otherwise might not be discovered. I believe that if you stay true to yourself and work hard, have a desire to learn and keep an open mind, you will get where you are meant to be. I look back at some of the adventures I feel so very privileged to have had, such as going to Antartica and the Sahara Desert to lm a documentary on five people’s mission to spread awareness and find a cure for diabetes through running ultra marathons. I have to pinch myself to make sure it’s real. It seems a long way from filming ourselves doing kick flips in the parking lot.
Recently, I’ve been working on some branded content for different clients such as Mercedes and Air New Zealand, but I want to get back to telling real people’s stories. I’m looking forward to going back to Myanmar later this year or next, as the skateboard scene is thriving there now. I think one more short documentary will wrap up a great trilogy and show how much the country, in particular the youth culture, has changed since 2009.
I have always been captivated with campaign films by non-profits such as water.org, Save the Children and others, and I’d love to do something with one of those organizations. I spend a lot of time thinking of ways to do something a little different, creating a new approach that people can relate to and contribute to. Ideas that spread awareness by making something beautiful for people to watch, not something that makes them feel shame but instead more about the solution.
Who knows what the future holds. For now, I will keep working hard and try to create things that inspire. We only have one chance in this life, and if I’m not doing something that challenges me creatively, makes myself and others happy, and inspires then what is the point in it all?