Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

Skateboard legend Tas Pappas, during the Q&A session for “All This Mayhem”, at the British Film Institute, London.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australia / UK 2014

Director: Eddie Martin

Runtime: 96 mins

It’s “wheels on fire” in this fabulous skateboarding documentary

If there is any justice in the world All This Mayhem will do for skateboarding what Senna did for F1 motor racing, by which I mean it deserves to find an audience of people who are not already followers of skateboarding. The film tracks the extraordinary rise and fall of Australian boarders Tas and Ben Pappas who, in the 1990s, successfully challenged the dominance of American star Tony Hawk only to have their worlds come crashing down around them in the most dramatic fashion. There are several parallels with Senna and, in fact, producer James Gay-Rees and editor Chris King both worked on that movie.

Like Senna, All This Mayhem is a combination of talking heads and recorded footage obtained from various sources. As a non-boarder I was duly impressed by the skills of this sport’s stars, though for me the boarding footage didn’t quite have the dramatic impact of, for example, Ayrton Senna’s incredible drive at Monaco in the rain or his on-track entanglements with Alain “The Professor” Prost. Where director Eddie Martin’s film really hits paydirt, however, is in the off-ramp footage of the wild Pappas brothers and, surprisingly, the interviews – especially those featuring Tas Pappas himself. Watching the scenes of the very young Pappas brothers and their friends made me nostalgic for a youth that I myself didn’t experience – wild and carefree – and in the interviews recorded for the film Tas Pappas is passionate, funny and rueful.

Tas describes himself and brother Ben as “bogans”, the Australian equivalent of the American term “white trash”. Domestic violence was part of the background to their upbringing, with their mother apparently giving their father at least as good as she got. After a spell learning “death blows” in martial arts training, Tas, and brother Ben, gravitated towards the vertical ramp skateboarding scene in Melbourne’s suburbs, a sport that clearly enabled them to express their individuality. The two of them were devoted to developing their skills, though had somewhat different approaches. Ben would work on his “lines”, repetitively working on a move until he had nailed it, whereas Tas was more inclined to “barnes” it – to decide upon some tricky move and just go for it. Once they had dominated the local scene, they somehow managed to scrape together the cash to head to America, with the explicit intention of dethroning American star Tony Hawk.

Tas Pappas (centre) with friends, following the UK premiere of All This Mayhem, at the British Film Institute.

Right from their early days, drug use – cocaine, speed, marijuana, magic mushrooms – was a part of the scene and performances on the ramp were routinely done under the influence of one or other substance. Clearly some of the boarders felt that drug use enhanced their creative skills on the ramp. Whether or not this was true, the Pappas brothers were soon vying with Tony Hawk for the top spot at boarding events. Their talent helped to revive vertical ramp boarding, which had been in something of a decline. However, the brothers were somewhat disdainful of Hawk’s performances, believing that the American  organisers often gave him undue credit for good but unadventurous moves (again, there are parallels with the disputes with the sporting authorities in Senna – and indeed in Rush, too). In 1996, at the Hard Rock Cafe World Championships, Ben Pappas was unable to perform to his best due to a back injury. This left Tas and Tony Hawk to fight it out. Hawk, again, played it steady but Tas decided to barnes it. He scored highly but broke his ribs in a fall. Hawk and Tas Pappas were now tied. Ben Pappas raged at the judges, because he couldn’t understand why Tas hadn’t won. In the event, there was a playoff and, for a second time, Tas barnesed it. He won.

In Senna, some motor racing fans felt that Alain Prost had been somewhat unfairly depicted. However, that is nothing compared to the pantomime villain that Tony Hawk is made out to be in All This Mayhem. Apparently Hawk told Ben Pappas that he felt he should have been judged the winner at the Hard Rock Cafe event. Ben then verbally laid into Hawk. Torn between playing the magnanimous victor or supporting his brother, Tas opted for the latter, telling Hawk to “Fuck off Hawk, ya fucking wanker!” I don’t know how fair the portrayal of Hawk is, but this last line led to a huge burst of laughter and applause in the audience around me, many of whom were obviously boarders or fans of the sport. Hawk is also the recipient of Tas’s disdain for willingly allowing the sport to be turned into a branch of showbiz, doing any number of inane stunts for money, whereas Tas is committed to the rebellious individualism of boarding’s street roots.

Following Tas’s victory at the Hard Rock Cafe World Championships, he and Ben fell into a pattern of wild partying, a period that became even more extended after Tas was diagnosed with a back injury. Eventually, Ben decided to head back to Australia but got arrested at Sydney airport after cocaine was found in one of his skate shoes. Of course, he was told that he would not be allowed back into America, which meant he could no longer compete on the international stage. Depression gave way to heroin abuse. A relationship with a fellow junky resulted in her death at Ben’s hands, and his suicide shortly afterwards.

Tas managed to get himself straightened out for a while, motivated by Ben’s death and his own fatherhood. However, after taking speed at an event as a way to deal with pain, he slipped back into old habits and eventually got arrested for the same crime as his brother – attempting to enter Australia in possession of cocaine. Tas was imprisoned in 2008 and released in 2012.

All This Mayhem is really a story of a loss of innocence, of young lads who mistakenly thought they could remain wild young rebels forever. Tas and Ben Pappas could just as well have been early tragic rock stars as skateboarders, pioneers without a route map to guide them through the dangerous realm of success. By the same token, when Tas champions the purity of devil-may-care individualism, with no thought of monetary gain, against the ESPN-sponsored showbiz events, it is hard not to cheer him on.

Rating: 10/10

Correction, 15th June 2014 – I originally inadvertently referred to the Pappas brothers getting involved in the “Sydney” boarding scene, when of course I should have said “Melbourne”

 

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Documentary – 76 minutes

USA/UK/Belarus

A member of the Belarus Free Theatre looks at his audience and tells them that scars are good. Women like men with scars. Scars are sexy. And then the punchline: In Minsk there are many men with scars.

The Belarus Free Theatre are a group of actors working without official sanction in Europe’s only dictatorship. For in Belarus there are state-approved theatre groups and anyone else is asking for trouble. The members of this group started out in state theatre, but then began working together on the material that interested them, increasingly using their drama as a form of protest. As one member tells us, the state can control what you see in film and television, and what you hear on radio, but theatre is different. Theatre takes place in the here and now, and that very immediacy gives it power. Before long members of the Free Theatre found themselves losing their jobs as a consequence of this activity, but this simply seems to have spurred their dedication. This highly affecting documentary, filmed surreptitiously and smuggled out of the country, tells the story of the group from just before 2010’s presidential elections.

The actors are encouraged by the candidacy of Andrei Sannikov. One theatre member describes the results thus: An election official goes to President Lukashenko and tells him there is good news and bad news. The good news is that he has won the election. The bad news is that no-one voted for him. After the results are announced there are protests in the main square at Minsk. The police arrive, arrest Sannikov and many others, and people are beaten up.

After this terrible event the Belarus Free Theatre continue to perform when they can, but things get harder, especially as the actors are so closely associated with the opposition movement. I could not help but be impressed and humbled by the dedication of the actors to their calling, especially in the face of the fear they so obviously felt. There is also something splendid about the fact that, conversely, a state can be so afraid of a small group of actors. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but in the event that I’m wrong I’m sure that one of Britain’s late, great, playwrights will have had pleasure from looking down and seeing these Belarusians putting on a piece titled “Being Harold Pinter”.

Eventually, some of the actors flee Belarus under forged passports, ending up in Britain where they maintain contact with their families and colleagues back home via the internet. Creating a new group here, they take a show to the Edinburgh Festival, where Natalia Koliada tells her audience that Belarus is not a sexy country. Sexy countries, she says, have oil, diamonds, mountains; Belarus is flat – no-one wants to come near us.

But the words that have really stayed with me are spoken when we see two of the exiles in a park, pacing up an incline. The man (Oleg, I think) rehearses his English: “We are walking up a hill”. His companion, who has a better grasp of the English pronunciations, repeats this: “We are walking up a hill”, she says. He tells her: “I think this is a slogan for our life”.

Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus opened the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London on 18th March.

Rating: 8/10