What A Six-Year-Old Skateboarder Taught Me About Life

Kamali’s defiance of gender boundaries showed me we all have the power to change the world – no matter how small, writes director Sasha Rainbow.

“Why aren’t you doing anything good with your film work?” my radical feminist grandmother asked over the phone. I was in my late 20s and living in Paris after breaking up with my first ever boyfriend. She later apologised – but her words stuck with me.

Not long after, I met Anna, a Roma woman who had started sitting outside my apartment with her two children, begging. I was shocked to learn she spoke five languages while I was still struggling to learn French. I thought about my own Roma history, and how as a first generation New Zealander with a refugee mother, I could easily have been in Anna’s predicament in different circumstances. Now, it wasn’t a question of wanting to do something good with my work, I had to tell this story.

I spent the next year researching and writing about the plight of the Roma in Europe. But I felt that it was unlikely anyone would give a feature film budget to a music video director like myself. And so I concocted a plan to pitch on my next music videos with documentary themes.

That’s how I found Kamali.

Researching an idea around filming the burgeoning female skateboarding movement, I came across an image online – a little girl, just six, barefoot on a skateboard in a pretty dress, speeding down a ramp. I’m not sure that I’d ever seen such determination, freedom and pleasure on a young child’s face. It was all-powerful, like she was a symbol for unlocking the potential in all of us.

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I was determined to find this bold six-year-old in a country of more than a billion people. After a week of digging we located Kamali, and convinced her mother, Suganthi, to leave their fishing village for the first time, and head to the big city of Bangalore to be a part of it.

I remember the day I first met Kamali. As night fell, we were about to wrap when Kamali appeared at the edge of the skate park: barefoot, in a pink t-shirt and holding a skateboard as tall as herself. Her eyes lit up as she took in her surroundings, she had never seen a skatepark so big. I liked her immediately. After a quick, warm greeting Kamali jumped on her board and started flying around the grounds, grinning. Without a moment’s hesitation, we had the camera back up and rolling and we ran after her filming until we all collapsed with exhaustion a couple of hours later.

Kamali and her mother stayed with our crew over the course of the next few days, and that’s when I really got to know them. On the last day of filming, with the aid of a translator, I interviewed them both and learnt of Suganthi’s fight to change Kamali’s path. Suganthi and I ended up in tears in each other’s arms. Here was this single mother, the same age as me, who had left her abusive husband and was doing anything in her power to give her daughter every opportunity she never had.

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It also didn’t seem to be just about success. Suganthi saw her daughter had found a passion for skateboarding, and despite the judgement of her whole community and family, was allowing Kamali to do something just for pleasure. This, it seemed, was the key to what was different about skateboarding. Yes, many a girl has been allowed to play a sport. But to do something for the sake of it? For fun? This felt different. As the week ended, I knew I had to come back to India and tell their story in full.

Six months later, we scraped together enough cash to get back to India for just under a month. Our small team moulded into Kamali’s daily life, often dropping or picking up Kamali from school, babysitting while her mum worked at her lemonade stall on the beach, or going shopping in the market for dinner. Her family accepted us with open arms. We had some difficulties in communication and things not going to plan, but in hindsight I believe that worked in our favour – we acted intuitively and followed emotion and tension more than words.

My main source of inspiration had been Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, a film about the tensions rising between people from different cultures living together in a block in New York, on the hottest day of summer. I had planned to tell Kamali’s family’s story in a wider context of the whole community, who were opposed to Kamali skateboarding at the time, believing her mother was putting her at risk of injuring herself, and thus jeopardising her ability to marry her off. But the community wouldn’t tell us this directly. Somehow, this forced us to focus on Kamali and her mother’s story, highlighting the much larger subject of generational change happening in India, and the surprising twist that Kamali’s mother, in a fight to empower her daughter through skateboarding, ended up empowering herself in the process. I too, felt like I was finding my voice, as a filmmaker.

Sasha, alongside Kamali and Sruganthi
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Sasha, alongside Kamali and Sruganthi

When I first started investigating a young girl on a skateboard, I never could have expected how inspired I would be by her family and their bravery to share so deeply. It motivated me to delve into my own family story, which I am writing as my first feature film, a twisted, fictional black comedy about a young woman who travels back to New Zealand when her father dies and discovers he’s left his estate to a mysterious young man.

If I had to narrow it down to one lesson I’ve learnt from Kamali and her mother, it would be this: we all have the power to change. It’ll be awkward, but our voices and our actions are our weapons. Kamali and her mother’s story reminded me; stand up for what you believe in and always be curious. Your life is worth something.

Sasha Rainbow is a filmmaker and director. Kamali, presented by Verizon Media’s RYOT, has been nominated for Best British Short Film at the 2020 EE Baftas.