The Origins of HI Sk8 Films

Interview: Elliott Wright/Video: contributions from previous HI Sk8 Films.

The theatre was dark but for the illuminated faces of all those in attendance, and the volume of the crowd had increased steadily over the course of the evening—murmurs had grown into cheers that now exploded from every direction.

I was at the 2019 HI Sk8 Films Festival and I’d consumed just the right amount of Hop Lei IPA to melt into my seat, but my two-week Hawaiian holiday was winding down. I knew that I would soon have to face the smog-filled, concrete jungle of Los Angeles. I made a conscious effort to enjoy the moment, and embrace the roaring positive energy of the room. It was the third time I had attended the HI Sk8 Films Festival. Started in 2012 as the brainchild of Travis Hancock, the festival takes place at the Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art. The festival’s mission is simple: bring together skateboarders from across the islands for a night of skateboarding films, camaraderie, and art. Inevitably, the festival’s ninth year will be much different from the preceding ones. I reached out to Travis, as well as his trusted associate Alec Singer, to learn more about how they hope to curate such an event during a global pandemic.

Travis, tell me about the origins of HI Sk8 Films.
Travis: It all began when I started working at the Doris Duke Theatre in 2011. The Museum of Honolulu already had a fairly well-established surf film festival that had been going on for a long time. In its glory days, I was told that it was very interactive, wild and fun. By the time I was at the museum, the surf festival was winding down, kind of in its golden years. I remember thinking it would be cool to use the theatre to do something with skating since there was already an event involving surfing. Around that time, the museum’s director, in an effort to diversify the audience of the museum, thought that skateboarders or tattoo artists could provide the cultural inroads to make that happen. My boss knew I skated, so that sparked the conversation.

So, that connection got the venue sorted. How were you able to find film submissions the first year?
Travis: It just so happened that APB skateshop was working on a fairly intensive video project called Uppercase, the sequel to their much-celebrated video Lowercase, released in the early 2000s. I thought maybe we could throw a premiere at the museum. Then that evolved into getting more filmmakers involved and doing a bigger event.

As the festival has grown in popularity, you have supplemented the films with other artistic endeavours. Care to elaborate on those?
Travis: The most successful of those were month-long skateboarding art shows that we held at the museum. The shows featured Hawaiian artists who don’t necessarily work in film but make art out of skateboards or paintings that involve surf and skate culture.
One year, at the sister location of the museum, Spalding House, we had a whole skateable sculpture element which was a mini skatepark. Other years we’ve screened international documentaries. We’ve invited musicians; we had Matt Costa come out one year.

With the growth of the festival, has there been an increase of attendees from outside the skateboarding world?
Travis: A couple years back, this filmmaker, Chris Yogi, came on a whim. He has kind of emerged as one of the foremost young filmmakers out of Hawai’i. Afterwards, he told me that he had not seen anything quite like HI Sk8. It was crazy to have this guy, who is very avant-garde, tell me that it was amazing. That was fairly validating to feel. I thought, ‘Wow, maybe there’s some bigger artistic experience going on here.’ That’s great, even if it makes some people uncomfortable.

What do you mean ‘uncomfortable’?
Travis: Because the films are the products of the community, which is usually represented in the audience as well, it’s an interactive experience with cheering, heckling, and every manner of ruckus you can imagine, [laughs]. Fortunately, no serious incidents have happened at the theatre. I think everyone has reached a certain level of respect for the space. There’s been some community policing that has kept things on an even keel.

Despite those potentially stressful moments, the festival has continued to grow. It’s great that the museum is still supporting it as a whole.
Travis: I think the director’s original goal came to fruition in that a lot of skaters who don’t really see something like a high-end art museum as a space that they should be entitled to, now find themselves attending year after year. I honestly think the skate community sees the museum as more of an acceptable site for them now, and a space that they feel not only welcomed to but invited to participate in and add to. I have seen museum admission stickers on the bottom of some skaters’ boards. I think, ‘Wow, that’s crazy.’

Do you think the director was correct in assuming that a culture as specific as skateboarding could broaden the museum’s patronage?
Travis: I think skateboarding has its own power to infiltrate different communities and arenas, based on some kind of collective action. It’s almost more like, did someone just have to prop the door open, and skateboarding would push its way in? It’s kind of an extension of its own inherent lawlessness. Skateboarding does not really believe in private property or the sanctity of the built environment in the same way that average consumers do.

Alec, tell me about your role regarding the festival?
Alec: I was a projectionist at Doris Duke Theatre for a few years, during which time the festival took place. I took a more active role regarding the art show/after party when Travis left the island to pursue his PhD.

What were some of the features of the afterparty/art show last year?
Alec: First off, Aloha Beer Co. hooked it up with the tastiest beer on tap. Mahalo for that.
Part of the art show was showcasing Jef Hartsel’s project called ‘Poetree’. It was a clothing company that was part mystic, part hip hop/jazz, and part kung fu, not dissimilar from a project of his ‘Shaolin’. The shirts were provided by Kelly Ishihara and Lila Lee. Arto Saari gave us a photo of Scott Oster, carving. We had one of Sean Reilly’s infamous ‘Boom Boxes’, which he has given me over the years to add to my collection. There was medieval skate weapon forged by Maxfield Smith. I brought in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater: Underground, which has the Hawai’i level. People were just chilling, playing that in a living room set-up. Tattoos by Andrew and Jack Gilleti. I woke up with the word ‘fakie’ on the back of my calf, but it’s backwards. So I guess it’s just regular? [laughs].

What about that sketchy rock-climbing wall?
Alec: There is a rock wall at Lana Lane that we were considering hiding, but we didn’t. Midway through the evening, people were just conquering the rock wall, feeling triumphant. No one got hurt, which is even better. It’s such a testament to skateboarders: ‘Oh, a rock wall, I want to figure that out.’

Travis, What are the plans for this year? How are you and Alec going to work around the pandemic?
Travis: I’m trying to frame it in terms of us doing our due diligence and attempting to have something to put out for the community to enjoy. Also, we want to use this year as kind of springboard into a bigger, in-person, ten-year anniversary for 2021. At this moment, I am 99% confident in saying it will be hosted through a Vimeo Livestream premiere, which will then be embedded on a webpage of the museum. It’ll be a streaming premiere the first night, November 20, and then will be accessible for several days after, at which point the link will close. We want a premiere-type experience with some wiggle room for those who might miss the initial stream.

How are you hoping to recreate that ambience which is so closely tied to a live event?
Travis: During the premiere, we will have a live chat. I want to get the digital platform right and have that all work seamlessly; the biggest thing is recreating some semblance of that interactive element.

What are the main motivators for you guys to devote your time and energy to this event year after year?
Alec: My drive is to stoke-out our local skate scene and the next generation. We hope to show them—and the older generations too—that they don’t have to leave Hawai’i in order to feel like they are part of a strong skate community. Hawai’i is a good zone for the new generation to feel at home and feel progressive. We have all these new skaters that are younger and better than us; they’ve been coming to these film festivals and watching the videos. It’s reflecting on their skating. I want to amplify that.

What about you Travis?
Travis: The ultimate payoff that I feel—and others who attend feel—is the energy hitting that pinnacle high. Also, there’s the satisfaction of seeing really cool skating going down, with bumping music that gets you going. It’s like an injection of some kind. I think when everyone feels that it’s such a big payoff. Professionally, I have been getting involved in other worlds. I often reflect that no matter what ‘important’ things I’m working on, probably none of that stuff, in the long run, is going to be as important to me as skateboarding is. There is a good chance that I accidentally already stumbled on the thing that could be one of the more important through lines in my life experience. An annual thing that’s about skateboarding and the community I care about. It helps me keep perspective.

Follow @hisk8films on Instagram for updates about the virtual premiere on November 20. otherwise—watch the space up top.

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