Maen Hammad’s short film Kickflips Over Palestine is a beautifully-shot and intimate portrait of a small — but growing — subculture in Palestine.
In little more than 20 minutes, it introduces the viewer to the freedoms and joys which skateboarding can bring to the lives of young people confined by the Israeli occupation.
But — refusing to romanticize the situation for Palestinian youth — it also depicts some of the impacts that occupation has.
Maen Hammad, the Palestinian American director of Kickflips Over Occupation, answered some questions about his film.
The Electronic Intifada: Maen, what originally inspired you to make this film?
Maen Hammad: Well, I decided to make this film after I went to Palestine in the summer of 2014. As I mentioned in the film, this was the first time I had been back in over a decade, the last time being during the second intifada.
So when I went that summer it opened my eyes to this version of Palestine, a Palestine I had never seen before. When I found kids skateboarding, I got to know them, as I was super excited to see this and they told me about how they got their boards from family members abroad or waited for [the organization] SkatePal to send them gear after months and months — and basically the struggles of even skateboarding in the West Bank.
These simple stories inspired me to make the film. I left back to America at the end of that summer and knew that the next time I went to Palestine I would be prepared to make this documentary. After an identity crisis of sorts and being totally blown away from Palestine, I ended up dropping out of law school (I never really started law school but that fall was supposed to be my first year) and knew that I wanted to come back to Palestine.
I booked my flight for March  so had about six months to get funding and all the preparations for Kickflips Over Occupation, a title I already had instilled in my head.
I was working three jobs at this point, so putting everything together in this sense was very difficult, not to mention I was studying for the GRE [graduate record examination] and appealing to masters programs. But everything worked out and I saved enough money to buy a camera, mic, stabilizer and a couple of lenses — roughly a $1,500 budget for all the gear.
I had very, very limited editing and filmmaking experience prior to this so I essentially learned how to make a documentary while I was making a documentary. I just filmed everything that seemed or looked important to me.
On taxi rides, during skate classes, in the streets, during interactions with soldiers … literally anything. Friends called me “the guy with the camera.” Everything kind of fell into place after filming. I had five months of footage and a rough idea of what was going to be narrated.
EI: How many young people do you think are actually skateboarding in Palestine?
MH: I think there are no more than 10 kids who actually own a skateboard and skate. By this I mean skate at least once or twice a week. These are who I would call the core skaters, the kids I interviewed and the ones skating around in the streets and stuff.
But I think there are at least 50 to 75 kids who practice in the skate lessons at the four different skate parks (Ramallah, Qalqiliya, Bethlehem and Zababdeh). They do not own a skateboard but go to skate classes and some of these kids are actually pretty good. There is also a new skatepark to be built in Nablus this fall.
In Gaza, I cannot answer that because I have never been and do not know much about the skateboarding scene there. I would love to know and to have skateboarding expand to Gaza but I do not think the siege seems to foster this idea.
EI: Is there any particular audience whom you would especially like to see this film?
MH: I would like everyone to see this film, but I think that it is most powerful for the international audience. I think that anyone who has skateboarded before or knows something about skateboarding will be able to learn from this film, on not only the occupation, but also about the skateboarders in Palestine.
I chose to do a primarily interview-focused story towards the end because I knew that their words were much more powerful than mine. I think that skaters from the US or Europe will appreciate their stories because the way they are using skateboarding is unlike anything else.
I also want critics of Palestine or Palestinian people to watch this, because the video shows a very different side to the Palestinian youth. The stigma of barbaric, rock-throwing terrorists is questioned by these kids. They are normal kids trying to live a more normal life in a very abnormal place.
EI: We meet some girl skateboarders in the film. Skateboarding is often seen as mainly a boys’ sport. How many girls skateboard in Palestine?
MH: There are some older girl skaters but they mostly participate in the skate classes and are not part of the 10 core skater crew. In Bethlehem, there were two skate classes, one for the boys and one for the girls, and the girls actually came in the same, if not greater, numbers during classes. In other words, they are just as good.
Medium for change
EI: Are skateboarding and other youth projects actually able to change things for young people, in your opinion, or do they just make it more possible for them to bear living under the occupation?
MH: Hmm, I like this question. I think that skateboarding and other youth projects actually can change things for young people. I can see it within the core group of skaters who skateboard every day. These kids use skateboarding in the same ways that I did as a kid — and more. It is hard to envision for a non-skater I think, but the self-development aspect of skateboarding is a real thing and this is why I think it can change things for them.
These kids also meet many internationals through the skateboard projects and gain insight on their life and vice versa, which allows them to communicate to a wide range of internationals.
Lastly, skateboarding as a safer outlet for them is a great medium for change. I think that the fact that Aram, one of the kids interviewed, who got shot two times, now uses skateboarding as his outlet instead of going to clashes or protests. So I think that skateboarding is definitely a way for them to bear living under occupation but skateboarding is also a way to change their lives.
EI: What do you see as the future — the next steps — for skateboarding in Palestine?
MH: I think the next step for Palestinian skateboarding is more skate parks and hopefully a skate shop. These two things will ensure more skaters. The skate parks and the gear for the skate classes, are under the wing of SkatePal and they are honestly doing a wonderful job at this. Just about every summer they are building a new park, which is awesome. Skate Aid, which built the Bethlehem skatepark, is also marvelous in choosing an SOS Children’s village, these at-risk youth and orphans love skateboarding, like they are excited for every single class.
Simply getting the gear is the biggest issue. Kids go to Jordan or wait for friends or family members to come to the West Bank with gear and this simply puts a hurdle in the way of skateboarding. I think that if there was a skate shop, that sold even the most basic of skateboards and gear, then that would progress the movement a lot.
Once kids see a skateboard and get on it they are all about it and always ask where I got it because they want one too. But I answer “from America” because there simply is no skate shop accessible to them. I think the idea of locally produced boards is really cool, I do not know if they have the tools and wood to do so but it would be awesome to see a Palestinian skateboard company.
I am excited to see the future of Palestinian skateboarding because it really is so new. With none of the kids having skated more than two years, it is very interesting to see the sport’s progression.