The "skate or die" mantra of many skateboarders takes on a new meaning in Myanmar. A few years ago, it would have been almost impossible to freely skate down a public street in Yangon, when the name of skating legend Tony Hawk was as foreign to many as Barack Obama.
But after the recent visit by the US president, a group of 15-20 local skaters have banded together in celebration of this Western youth culture. And they, and much of the country's burgeoning youth culture, have been captured in the documentary Youth of Yangon. With seemingly impeccable timing, the film-makers have touched the essence of the new Myanmar in the infancy of its reforms, just as new youthful voices are being heard for the first time.
The Youth of Yangon project was initially proposed by Ali Drummond, a Myanmar language student at London's School of Oriental and African Studies and a professional skateboarder from the UK. He collaborated with film-maker and long-time friend James Holman for their first movie, Altered Focus: Burma.
With youthful curiosity, two small camcorders and a little naivety they set off into an unknown land to capture what they could. The result is as much a document on the origins of a subculture as it is the gonzo backpacker travelogue of two skaters on tour.
"We were looking to diversify our skill set and it [the project] sounded like a great mix of documentary content combined with our passion for skateboarding. We had no idea what to expect," said Holman of their initial foray to Myanmar. "That's how we first met the 'Youth of Yangon' _ AK Bo, Ye Wint Ko, Thuwai, Globe and many others. They became an integral part of that first film, and if it wasn't for them we might not have had anything at all let alone a follow-up."
Through a shared love of skateboarding, the young film-makers were able to gain rare insights into the lives of Myanmar's youth.
"Skateboarding provides a form of interaction that few other sports or cultures can provide," said Holman. "You can go to any other country in the world and when you meet another skateboarder, language barriers are irrelevant as you share this passion for a common activity in an urban space. None of us at the time could speak Myanmar but because we all skateboarded, it didn't matter."
After receiving positive feedback on Altered Focus: Burma, the film-makers decided to return to Myanmar to shoot a follow-up.
They made it back in September last year, and with restrictions on foreign visitors opening up, the resulting film, Youth of Yangon has a more polished edge, making its cultural commentary even stronger.
"I think now more than ever, the Burmese [Myanmar] youth have a voice. They have the ability to explore and freely participate in things like skateboarding," says Holman.
''The opening up to the West, the easing of sanctions, that all helps allow people to express themselves more and open up their minds to other ideas,'' he added.
In what would be a unique event of its kind in Yangon, support for a screening of the film was given by the British Council in Myanmar, largely through the efforts of Matthew Sheader. The screening also gave local skateboarders the chance to talk with the media, and to discuss the provision of facilities with government representatives. Pansodan Gallery volunteered space for the screening, which took place from February 6-11.
What followed would be a rare moment in Myanmar cultural history, where the voices of the skateboarding youth would be heard by government officials—a dialogue decades overdue.
''The idea was really to attract a wide range of people—from the local community, skaters and officials—to meet and talk,'' says Drummond, the film's producer. ''You never get that in the same space. We invited loads of press too. For the first time, the skaters realised that people were really interested in them. Since the exhibition, things have changed.
''They have started holding meetings, seeing the bigger picture, and they have started forming the Myanmar Skate Federation.''
Ye Wint Ko, one of the skateboarders featured in the film, has become central to establishing the federation. ''Skateboarding in Myanmar is important because there are many kids interested in it,'' says Wint Ko. ''But they don't have enough space to skate. We now have the freedom to skate, but the streets are not good enough and we don't have many skate parks.
''Now we're trying to form the Myanmar Skate Federation. People who are interested in skateboarding will come and join with us and Myanmar skateboarding will be as famous as in other countries.''
The screening was coupled with an exhibition of photographs of local skateboarders. ''Skateboarders of Yangon'', by Henry Kingsford, photographer and editor of Grey Skateboard Magazine in London, showcased 15 of his black and white portraits at the gallery during the six-day event, boosting its exposure.
''I found it quite exciting that there seemed to be this kind of 'pure' subculture in Yangon, as the skateboarders there have been isolated from the skateboard media, including skateboard magazines and online video content,'' says Kingsford. ''I was excited by this idea of a small subculture existing in isolation from the outside world. They do approach skateboarding in their own unique way.''
A central objective of the screening and exhibition was to raise awareness of skating in Yangon, and also to encourage the development of more facilities for such recreation, particularly since the only skate park in Yangon has been vandalized.
''We need a good place to skate,'' said one of the young boarders in Youth of Yangon, capturing not just the essence of the documentary, but also the ambition of the youth.
They want to skate, speak, create—and build what may become the most powerful youth-culture voice in the region, come the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015.
Youth of Yangon will be available online at vimeo.com from May 9. Watch the trailer at vimeo.com/58163649. Altered Focus: Burma is online at vimeo.com/19780095.
This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post on April 7, 2013.