Without a shadow of a doubt, Youth of Yangon was the most remarkable video that I watched last year. Nominated for Best Documentary in the 2013 International Skateboard Film Festival and officially selected at the 2014 Byron Bay Film Festival, it appeared that Ali Drummond and James Holman’s production struck similar chords elsewhere. When I started speaking to Ali, however, I realised that the impact of the film wasn’t as pervasive as I’d assumed. Having only ever met once, I was certainly grateful when Ali said he’d have an interview. And so I appreciated it even more when he told me he was in Bangkok, and, due to internet hitches, could only talk for a few days before he headed back to Myanmar. The country formerly known as Burma, it was after this that I began to fully comprehend the difficulties that face young people in Yangon. Yet unlike the optimistic conclusions that end most documentaries, the situation in Myanmar still needs help and more people should be made aware of it. Therefore, more than anything I’ve written about so far, Youth of Yangon gets my highest recommendation because it vividly portrays the benefits that activities like skateboarding can offer.
So first things first Ali, where are you from, how old are you and where are you at the moment?
I’m 25 years old and was born and raised in the South-East of England. I’m currently living out in Yangon, Myanmar and I’ve been over here since December last year.
You finished Youth of Yangon just over a year ago, what have responses to the film been like in Myanmar? Has any headway been made?
On the whole, responses from those who have seen Youth of Yangon have been very positive. Unfortunately though, the reach of Youth of Yangon has been nothing in comparison to that of the previous film, Altered Focus: Burma. I say it’s unfortunate because in my opinion Youth of Yangon is telling a much more important story – the adversity the Myanmar skateboarding community has to deal with on a daily basis.
It seems to have played out this way: the novelty of three white guys skateboarding around Myanmar before the so called ‘reformist’ period of the Myanmar government is actually more popular viewing than a film that has a real and important story to tell.
What about back home in Britain?
The U.K skateboarding community has been really supportive by posting up links to Youth of Yangon. I’m not sure if it will be able to match the strange amount of publicity Altered Focus got though, especially the BBC News slot! That was pretty surreal.
And so what originally took you out to Myanmar in the first place?
My first trip to Myanmar was to make Altered Focus back in 2009. I’d started studying the Burmese language at University the previous year and was scheduled to head out in 2010 for a year abroad program. But I was eager to make a personal trip over first, just to gauge how it would be to live there for an extended period of time.
Photo: Henry Kingsford
Did anything draw you there specifically, as opposed to any other areas of Southeast Asia?
My interest in Myanmar all stems back from a documentary that I happened to catch one day when I was flicking through the television at the age of sixteen. It was about the monstrosities committed by the Burmese government – the same people in power today – against the students in the 1988 uprising. The daily news being broadcasted at the time was exclusively about the West’s ‘liberation’ of Iraq and Afghanistan, but here was a country completely overlooked and overshadowed. I was surged forward to find out more about this country called ‘Burma’ by my complete naivety of thinking that Western foreign policy decisions were based upon improving human rights, and not exploiting them in self-interest for financial gain.
And how did the idea for Youth of Yangon come about?
James (Holman) and I had always wanted to make a film solely about the Myanmar skateboarding community. So the catalyst to make it happen came when the only skatepark in Yangon at the time, ‘Thuwanna’, was bulldozed down one night without any warning in August 2011. The skatepark had been home to the Yangon skateboarding community since the mid-90s and, at the time of its destruction, no redevelopment of the city had started taking place: the roads were full of potholes and the pavements were non-existent at best. There was a period of about 6 months after Thuwanna’s destruction when there literally was no place for the skateboarders to go. It wasn’t like they could just go and find a place with smooth floor and build a ramp and a rail – there simply wasn’t anywhere and they didn’t have the money to afford to build anything D.I.Y.
Thuwanna Skatepark, Yangon. Photo: Ali Drummond
What was the process of filming Youth of Yangon like? When did you and James begin and how long were you able to spend filming? What were the main difficulties you encountered?
We spent a full month in Myanmar, filming most days. James and Toby (assistant camera man) put in so much hard work to collect enough footage in the time we had. I didn’t actually do any of the filming; my role was to interview all the skateboarders and organise things. To be honest, as far as interviewing the skateboarders, we had no real problems. They were all more than eager to share their stories and to get their voices heard internationally. The only real problems we encountered surrounded trying to get an interview, or even just talking with, the owner of the City Centre skatepark that’s featured in the film. It was such a classic Burmese example of a top-down power structure. The staff members were unable to make even the simplest decisions for themselves without approval from ‘the boss’ who, by the way, was never there and only turned up sporadically for quick ‘check ups’ – or so they said.
In Altered Focus, it seemed like filming in Myanmar was an issue because of scrutiny from the government. Did anything like that occur during Youth of Yangon?
We definitely were worried about filming during Altered Focus. Unconfirmed rumours mixed with the notoriety of the Burmese military government fuelled a kind of extreme paranoia. Looking back now it’s almost laughable, but I think we were right to be cautious at the time. We always thought we were ‘being followed’ but I’m not sure how much of it was just our mind playing tricks on us. That said, I’m pretty sure we had two secret police following us on the bus up to Mandalay one time. It was a 10 hour bus ride and at the time we had to get off at all these check points along the way. Two smartly dressed guys sitting in front of us on the bus never got off once though and were always waved through the check points, while the rest of us standing passengers would wait by the side the of the road. In contrast, we had no problems with filming during Youth of Yangon from the authorities at all, as far as I can remember anyway.
All the guys in the film rip and seem really passionate about skateboarding. How would you compare the scene in Yangon to those elsewhere?
I think the scene here, for a place like Yangon – where access to proper skateboard hardware is extremely limited, too expensive for most and where a standard basic skatepark doesn’t exist – is remarkable.
I really believe that given the chance the scene could, in the future, rival that of Thailand.
Photo: Ali Drummond
It looks like Southeast Asia is increasingly being seen as a possible skate destination. Patrik Wallner’s The Mandalay Express and The Killing Season present areas where skating, while difficult, is certainly possible. As someone who has actually lived there for a while, is there any truth behind this?
I think you can pretty much skate anywhere in the world if you put your mind to it. It all depends on how you interpret the environment around you. You definitely need to have an ‘East Coast’ approach to skateboarding out here in Southeast Asia to really make the most of the spots on offer though.
People have been coming on skate trips to Southeast Asia for years now, yet the subcontinent always gets overshadowed by its larger neighbour, China, and for good reason. For most big companies, the time on skate trips is limited and the pressure to collect photos and footage is extremely high. China is an easy option because you know what you’re going to get. You could compare it to Europe a decade ago when Barcelona was still blowing up: Why traipse around Moldova looking for spots that might not be there, when you could have the most sought after ones on your doorstep? China is by no means blown out yet, and you could argue that the rapid rate of development there means that it never will. Nevertheless I do think that people are increasingly starting to look further a field in the region. That said, I think it will still be a long time before a skateboard company solely comes to Myanmar for a skateboard trip.
What about on the administrative side, do you think Southeast Asia is beginning to embrace skateboarding?
It varies greatly between each country. I would say that Thailand is leading the pack by a very long way. Thailand has such a great skate scene, the backbone of which is supported by a proper skateboarder owned and run shop/company ‘Preduce’. This is really refreshing in a country that seems to have completely sold its soul to shallows of western commercialism. I would say though that skateboarding is no new concept to Southeast Asia. Roller rinks of Chinese influence were built all over the region in the late 80s and early 90s, the remnants of which are still there in some places or have since been turned into beer stations or shops. It’s often a cliché for skateboarders to return from an exotic location, especially in Southeast Asia, and brag about how the locals had never seen skateboarding before. Here, it’s more they haven’t seen a foreigner on a skateboard before.
Is the scenario the same in Myanmar? Despite the political turmoil is there the possibility of developing a thriving skate scene?
Most definitely. Wherever capitalism is involved skateboarding will follow. Just in the last 6 months 16 ‘roller rinks’ of varying quality have opened up in Mandalay alone. It’s a resurgence of the late 80s/90s roller rinks; only this time around some of the owners have incorporated some obstacles for skateboarders. Most of the owners of the new roller-rinks in Myanmar have very little knowledge – if not know nothing about skateboarding – but are slowly being introduced to it through the recently establish Myanmar Skaters Association (MSA). Basically a skateboard hardware distributor needs to start up in Myanmar to accommodate all the new roller-rinks that are continuing to open up in the country, as well as the masses of potential skateboarders that will follow as a result.
So what are your plans now Ali? What are you doing when you head back to Myanmar in a couple of days?
I’m back out here to continue my study of the language since it’s winter back home. I’m trying to get involved with a couple of freelance translating projects while I’m here as well, just for experience in that line of work.
And what about further in the future, are you planning any more projects or films?
The future plan is to work together in conjunction with the Myanmar Skaters Association and the international skateboard Non-Governmental Organisation ‘Make Life Skate Life’. Along with the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), we’re trying to build an international standard concrete skatepark in Yangon to facilitate the expansion of skateboarding in the city. Hopefully we will be able to document the project when the time comes.
That sounds awesome. Thanks again for the interview Ali, I wish you the best of luck.