Brisbane born Tina Brown and Los Angeles based Dyana Winkler, both first time directors, are in Central Park, filming the older roller-skaters doing their thing in the bright New York sunlight. It strikes them both that hobbies like roller-skating, which are perhaps seen as quaint, could disappear when the old school finally hang up their wheels.
“Then we met two younger African American roller-skaters who we chatted to,” Tina tells us from Auckland as she reminisces about the day. “They were like, ‘No, roller skating isn’t going to die off. It’s not dead. It’s just underground. You should come with us and see legit skating’.”
The two women were soon on an overnight bus from New York to Richmond, Virginia where, at midnight, they would have their first experience of Adult Nights, and the vast African-American skating community. This would be the true genesis of their documentary, United Skates.
“Walking into that rink for the first time, I can’t even describe that feeling,” Tina beams. “Some skaters made way, so I could film. And the next thing I know, someone is doing ‘a nutcracker’ towards the camera. And we were like ‘what is this?’ Someone is doing the splits, splitting and sliding towards my camera. That happened a couple of times. The lady skaters who were above me said, ‘Did you get that?’ I was still recording, so you can hear the audio of me going ‘Oh my god! What was that? Where am I? What is happening right now? This is amazing!’ I think that sums up that world perfectly on that night.”
A nutcracker is one of many athletic moves that can be found being performed in rinks around America. These are complex and often exhilarating feats that are borne from the city you come from; whether you’re from Chicago, LA or Philadelphia every skate community has their own style and, more importantly, everyone is part of one big family. It was this sense of ‘love and community’ which Tina and Dyana wanted to capture in their film.
The film follows several people across several towns, from single mothers to rink rats to rink owners. We experience firsthand their love of roller-skating and how, in a way, it defines who they are. The subjects of the documentary – their characters, as Tina refers to them – inadvertently chose themselves. People like, hardcore skater Reggie.
“That first night there we met Reggie. He wasn’t trying to be on camera. He was trying to educate us in a sense,” Tina says. “We often found that the people who were trying to help us and steer us were the ones we should turn the camera on, because they weren’t in it for the glory, but the community.”
As filming progressed, the two directors, who ended up crashing on the floors of some of their subjects, found themselves entering doorways to stories that appear to steer far from skating whilst looping back to the identity of black people in America. The Civil rights movement, the birth of hip hop, and even LA gang culture: they all raise their head in United Skate’s narrative. The term ‘Adult Night’ itself, stems from the coded description rinks would use post-segregation to give a heads up to white families that the clientele would be predominately black.
“All these little breakaway elements, we wanted to include,” Tina says. “But everyone was like, ‘No, you’re trying to tell a character story. You can’t include this, you should focus on one thing. It’s either about all these other things, or it’s about the character.’ But we really felt strongly that it was all important; that it added up to the full picture.”
Talking to story consultants and sticking to their ideals, Tina and Dyana soon had something they felt resonated with the sense of community they had witnessed all those years ago, with the film premiering at Tribeca Film Festival.
United Skates’ popularity at the festival snowballed. Musician John Legend, who now acts as executive producer on the film, attended the premiere along with several members of the hip-hop community. The film became one of Robert De Niro’s picks and it won The Audience Award. But as Tina recalls that special night, it’s clear who the most important critics of their film were: The skaters they had spent so much time with.
“We didn’t show them the film before the premiere because we finished it at the last minute. They saw it with us, which is kind of nerve-wracking,” Tina admits. “But we knew they would approve of what we made. This is a documentary that has the potential to crossover and become more mainstream and that’s what we what always hoped. And to see that come to fruition is really exciting.”
United Skates is screening at the Brisbane International Film Festival, which is on from October 11 – 21, 2018, and the Antenna Documentary Film Festival in Sydney, which is on October 9 – 14, 2018.