We interview the filmmaker and stars of ‘Skate Kitchen,’ this summer’s best film about skateboard culture.
For many documentarians making their feature debut, the focus is on the differences: what it felt like to craft a story rather than find the narrative in a series of candid footage. That is unless you’re Crystal Moselle. In 2015, Moselle released The Wolfpack, a documentary about a group of New York City brothers who – confined to their apartment building for most of their youth – learned to engage with the world around them through their recreation of famous movie scenes. Three years later, Moselle is again blending together truth, fiction, and home videos with Skate Kitchen, a feature film based on the real-life exploits of the group of New York City skaters by the same name. Using the group’s popular YouTube and Instagram video series as an inspiration for her own film, Moselle, and her young cast worked to create something that spoke to their everyday experiences as an inclusive skateboard group.
“Making The Wolfpack, I felt constricted because I wanted to collaborate with them more,” Moselle admits during our interview. Moselle is flanked on both sides by seven of her stars – the actual members of Skate Kitchen – who weigh in throughout our conversation on the experience of turning a true story into something both different and similar. “I originally was going to do a documentary, but I actually really loved collaborating with them,” Moselle continues. “I felt like I wanted to do something that comes [from] pure creativity.” This allowed Moselle and her cast to play around with how the story of Skate Kitchen got told. In real life, the group was founded by Rachelle Vinberg; in the film, Vinberg plays Camille, the film’s main character and a longtime fan of Skate Kitchen online. The scripted elements allow Moselle and Vinberg to construct a powerful backstory for Camille, a child of divorce who lost her relationship with her father in her teenage years and has never managed to find common ground with her mother. Throughout the film, Camille runs away from home to live with her new friends, only to watch her own status in the group fall apart as a result of tension with a rival male group.
Since Skate Kitchen uses both fictional and non-fictional elements in it narrative, it’s only natural that each of the actresses would find a different level of themselves in their characters. Nina Moran, for instance – whose character Kurt has very little patience for people outside her own small clique – described her performance as an exact copy of the kind of interactions you could expect to have with her on the street. Others, like Ajani Russell, found it more difficult to revert to a previous version of themselves. “It was 100% myself, but it was myself two years ago,” Russell explained. “When we were filming it wasn’t the person I felt I was at the time, so it was like, ‘Oh, how did I used to be?’” Ardelia Lovelace, who plays Janay, describes her performance as about half her real-life persona. “I had to dive into certain circumstances and act on things the real Ardelia wouldn’t have done,” she offers. “You know, diving into who that character is, and trying to play that, in terms of how the anger came through, in terms of how involved I was in the group.”
However close each character may be to her performer, Moselle and her cast agree that Skate Kitchen comes closest to capturing the group’s dynamic in the scene where Camille skates with them for the first time. Set to ‘Move Your Feet’ by Danish pop duo Junior Senior, this scene shows Skate Kitchen’s welcomeness towards their newest member. As the girls dance and skate their way across Manhattan, Moselle’s camera captures the unguarded joy of a group of women doing exactly what they were meant to be doing. “That scene really captures our real selves,” Vinberg explains. “This is actually how it was.” Moselle is quick to agree. “I actually witnessed a scene that was very similar to that. We were walking around that neighborhood, it was maybe the summer when they first started hanging out, and I was walking around with them. They were all going crazy,” she says with a laugh. As the girls danced together, Moselle found herself already thinking about the power of that moment. “‘This is a great scene,’” she remembers thinking, and one of the many skating montages that give Skate Kitchen its endearing degree of authenticity. Much like the group’s social videos, Skate Kitchen doesn’t shy away from the accidents that occur on the path to success. Expect to see some tumbles.
And given their real-life expertise, the members of Skate Kitchen were also encouraged to collaborate with Moselle and find an authentic voice for the movie. As such, Skate Kitchen is anchored in their experiences and the inclusive environment they try to create. While the movie creates tension between Skate Kitchen and a rival male skateboarding group, this gender divide among their own members isn’t something they deal with on a regular basis. “They came to me and said, hey, we don’t want this film to be girls versus. boys, because it’s not like that,” Moselle recalls. “They’re actually friends with a lot of guys. The idea is that, for a girl to start skateboarding, it’s intimidating, because it’s dominated by boys.” That’s doesn’t mean the group doesn’t encounter sexism on a regular basis, however. Vinberg recalls the scene where Kurt is asked by a stranger on the street if she actually knows how to use the board she’s carrying. “That’s something that happens to us all the time. We’ll be walking down the street and they’ll say, ‘Can you actually skate?’” This is a common experience for the group, and one they find to be inherently gendered. “That’s not something that guys really deal with,” Vinberg explains. “Nobody’s going to go up to a 20-year-old man and say, ‘Prove that you skate.’ People will do it, not really intending to sound mean, but that’s the little micro-aggressions that are still happening.”
As the group travels with the film, they find that their experiences in New York City are being echoed in skateparks around the world. The cast recalls many conversations with audience members where Skate Kitchen was praised for its authenticity, and skateboarders turn up to praise Moselle’s film in even the most unlikely locations. “I went to Russia with this film and it was incredible,” Moselle remembers near the end of our conversation. “The entire theater was filled with skateboarders – a lot them were girls – and a lot of them said they were inspired to start skating from seeing these girls on social media. I was inspired to see that it’s a zeitgeist, it’s spreading.” The idea here is clear for cast and creator alike: Skate Kitchen is for all the women out there who ever felt that they weren’t supposed to pursue a passion but did so anyway. Here’s to a world where you’re never asked if you can actually do a kick-flip.