Skateistan Film Response
Jeffrey A. Volkmer
Just Skating By: Skateboarding as Sanctuary in a Fallen World
The third movement of the creation account in the second chapter of the book of Genesis is striking in the amount of detail dedicated to the description of the Garden of Eden. Not only is the quantity of detail noteworthy, but so also is the quality, or the type of details recorded. We may start by noting that after breathing life into Adam, God ‘puts’ (Ge 2.8) Adam in the garden He planted in Eden. The Hebrew term used for ‘garden,’ gan, derives from the verbal root, ganan, meaning to ‘cover, protect, or hedge in.’ Therefore, from the very beginning it was God’s intention for man, the pinnacle of His creation, to provide a special place set apart for the enjoyment and provision of man in communion with Himself. This is underscored later in the chapter in verse 15 when the Hebrew literally states, ‘The Lord God took the man and caused him to rest in the garden of Eden.’ The early chapters of Genesis thus establish Eden as a sanctuary for man par excellence where he was met with not only perfect provision, but also perfect fellowship with his benevolent Creator.
Not only is Eden lush, overwhelmingly beautiful, and replete with vegetation ‘good’ for food, but it is also abundant in precious jewels and metals such as gold, bdellium, and onyx. This latter set of detail is curious in that while the purpose of the verdant flora in Eden is obvious and its value to Adam unmistakable, one could rightly question the purpose of said ‘precious metals’ in such an idyllic locale. The inclusion of the jewels in the Garden is just one of many overt connections the Genesis creation account makes with the description of the tabernacle later in the Pentateuch in Exodus 25.1-31.18. The painstaking detail and length dedicated to the description of the tabernacle in Exodus seems at first so out of place in a book chronicling the sweeping epic of the Hebrews’ deliverance from Egypt. However, when one realizes that the tabernacle, like the Garden, is meant as the locus of communion between man and God, the protracted descriptions of both the Garden in Genesis and the tabernacle in Exodus come into focus and are set next to each other through explicit repetition of terms and images.
A further parallel is that in the Garden, failure to obey God results in the expulsion from the Edenic sanctuary and the communion with God to be found there, just as failure to approach the Tabernacle in accordance with the statutes and ordinances for proper worship in Leviticus results in the exclusion from participation in worship in the Tabernacle and the communion with God to be enjoyed there.
At this point, two profound theological truths can be seized upon. First, God’s original intention for mankind was permanent residence within His specially prepared sanctuary. God intended for His presence to be enjoyed within the confines of a specially prepared, set apart place. Secondly, sin, or the propensity of man to seize his own prerogative for life away from his Creator, results in losses both of His place within that sanctuary as well as the communion with God to be found therein. A thread can then be traced across all of Scripture in which man is pictured desperately seeking to recreate the sanctuary lost at the Fall through temporal, transitory, and false means while God, in a grand counter movement, moves ever toward His people bringing them back into sanctuary with Him, culminating with the creation of a new heavens and a new earth in which they should dwell.
As a film, Skateistan offers an uncanny representation of a biblical portrayal of what it is to be ‘outside’ the confines of divine sanctuary. Adam and Eve forfeit their place in Eden by choosing for themselves what was ‘good for food and delightful to look at and desirable for obtaining wisdom,’ rather than looking to God for their ‘good.’ Their choice causes them to be expelled from their sanctuary with God and sets in motion a series of consequences the full force of which Adam and Eve are left to feel outside the confines of their divinely established sanctuary. Skateistan is profound in the way in which it captures these effects portrayed in Scripture in a vivid, profound, and jarring fashion. On this level, the film is strikingly biblical and could not have been crafted with greater aplomb by the most able of theologians.
The effects of the Fall as described in Genesis can be expressed by means of several separations that also appear in Skateistan. In contrast to these separations, skating stands as an antidote, nullifying and rendering impotent that which afflicts Skateistan’s characters.
Using these separations as a point of departure, I would like to offer the following observations about the film.
Man Separated from Creation
Stakeistan opens with the adhān, or the Muslim call to prayer, against a grey, snowy mountain on the horizon, a sound that gives way to the empty howl of the wind. It is raining and obviously cold as men bow to warm themselves over a make-shift fire of scrap wood. The full force of what it is to be ‘outside’ is masterfully portrayed. Murza tells us that his hands freeze against the cars he struggles to wash for his employment and the ground upon which cold rainwater collects is everywhere grey. Yet, when we first move inside the skatepark it is warm and well lit, and Murza cleans it, sweeping the dirt and dust outside of doors that can be closed against the outside. To skate ‘inside’ the skatepark means to be in a sanctuary against the cold opposition of nature.
Inside the sanctuary of the Garden Adam and Eve are given every kind of plant for food and the ground brought forth its produce for the purpose of nourishing man. Skateistan’s opening scenes include the carcasses of dead animals hanging in the market, their red sinews a stark contrast to grey landscape that envelopes everything else on the screen. At one point a man swings his hatchet to cut some of the raw meat he is selling. Noteworthy is the fact that all of the meat pictured is without its skin, a detail which is profound when considered against the Bible. Adam and Eve post-Fall are given animal skins to wear after becoming aware of their naked state, thus establishing ‘skin’ throughout the rest of the Bible as a place where sin is made apparent. Not only is death necessary to clothe Adam and Eve, but in Leviticus one is not able to enter the sanctuary or tabernacle with imperfections on the skin. Also, when sacrificing a guilt offering in the sanctuary the priest is to burn the entire animal save for the skin, as it would be inappropriate to offer unto God a representation of sin. Jesus in the New Testament too is often seen healing the skin, a picture of the much more profound healing of the soul from sin. On top of all of this, the swinging ax, the blood-red tomatoes, the corpses, the absence of skin all provide parallels to the sacrificial activities proscribed for the sanctuary in the Pentateuch where forgiveness and death are inextricably linked.
Yet, through all of these scenes, Murza and his friend skate by, going somewhere with purpose. They skate past a goat’s head, reminiscent of the scapegoat in Lev 16 upon which the sins of the community would be transferred for forgiveness and atonement with God. In the Bible, the sacrifice of animals and the substitutionary atonement of the animal for the people allow one to entire the sanctuary to enjoy communion with God.
One final note is that in Eden man is perfectly provided for by the vegetation God has bestowed him. However, much is made in Skateistan, both from the perspectives of Murza and Fazilla, about how difficult it is for them to earn a living with the former washing cars in the freezing winter and the latter selling chewing gum on the street. One of the biblical consequences of being outside of the sanctuary is the struggle that attends provision for oneself and one’s family. Murza and Fazilla certainly feel this.
Man is Separated from Man
Immediately after the Fall, Adam and Eve turn to accusations and blame, signaling a grand departure from the ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’ unity espoused by Adam when first meeting his wife. This cleft in the inter-human relationship takes a serious turn toward greater dysfunction just one generation later as the elder of the first couple’s progeny, Cain, motivated by jealousy, takes the life of his younger brother and spawns an entire line given over to violence and a war-like disposition.
Similarly, Skateistan is set in war-torn Afghanistan and haunting images of a nation at war saturate the film. Afghani armed vehicles roll into town while the camera cuts away to show Murza and his friend walking to the skate park past a faceless and unidentifiable man holding a gun, only to have his translated words, ‘We can’t escape the violent situation,’ appear at the bottom of the screen. At one point the camera pans away from a female learning to skate under a shining sun with the assistance of another to Murza who looks up at a radiant sky to watch a Blackhawk helicopter fly overhead. It is the confines of the skatepark that provide a sanctuary from the war that has scarred the Afghani nation for decades. In the skatepark there is order, structure, and a wholeness that it noticeably absent from any other part of the film (recall the man sitting in a La-Z-Boy on the second floor of a building without any walls) as all of the ramps are neatly arranged and organzied. Even when outside of the park the children of Afghanistan take their sanctuary with them whenever they are on their boards. Fazilla, when skating on the side of a long empty pool towers over a torched-out tank below her – she has literally risen above when upon her board. While war and tribal conflicts have turned Afghan against Afghan for years, men join hands with smiles in order to steady one another upon a skateboard. There is a beautiful scene when a soldier dressed in his camouflage fatigues is all smiles when upon a board. One particularly salient image in the film comes when we first see Murza in the skatepark he helps to keep clean. Gone are the pebbles and pavement cracks that cause his board to flail about beneath him, rather, inside the park he glides upon a smooth floor only to ascend a quarter pipe erected on top of an old bomb. At this point in the film, he has truly found the safety and security that is inherent in the biblical ideal of sanctuary.
An important theme running throughout the film is the state of women. This comes across in a poignant way in the telling of Fazilla’s story, but there are also other glimpses throughout. This is done both positively and negatively, for on the one hand we are able to see women completely covered, forced to interact with their world through a blue screen. Yet on the other hand, the absence of women in the film is palpable, they play virtually no role in the society and thus appear sparingly in the film. However, those whom we do get to see ‘under the veil,’ Fazilla and Skateistan founder, Shana Nolan, are some of the roundest, and most virtuous, characters of the film.
Biblically, the situation is similar. Throughout the biblical corpus, especially in the Old Testament, women are often treated poorly as evidence of the sinfulness of man, but simultaneously serve at strategic points in the meta-narrative as examples of all that God would expect – Ziporah, Rahab, Deborah, and Ruth are some conspicuous examples. However, the first hint of the plight women are to feel away from the sanctuary of Eden occurs in the 3rd chapter of Genesis in verse 16: ‘Your [Eve’s] desire will be for your husband, but he will dominate you.’ It is important to remember that this was not God’s plan or intention, but that the subordination of women to men, existing everywhere but found to be especially acute in Muslim countries, is a result of sin.
Throughout Skateistan whenever someone steps upon a skateboard for the first time their balance is tenuous, their feet unsure, and they are caught between fear and delight. This is what to experience sanctuary in this world. It is fleeting, temporary, and incomplete. This is also the main story of the entire Bible. In the cold, harsh reality of the world outside of the sanctuary God had intended for man to forever reside in, all man-made forms of insulation are ultimately illusory. On the one hand Skateistan is a wonderful testimony and example to us how something as simple and mundane as skateboarding could bring such relief and delight to those who are hurting. Yet on the other hand, Skateistan also tells us that any human attempt at sanctuary will be met with limited success.