Jesse Locke of Unlocked Films is currently working on a documentary that highlights a refugee skate park, 7 Hills Skate Park, in Amman, Jordan. This particular park was developed by Mohammed Zakaria in conjunction with Philadelphia Skateboards and Make Life Skate Life.
7 Hills offers an incredible oasis in a land riddled with war and tragedy.
The city of Amman houses some of the largest numbers of refugees throughout the world. Refugees from Gaza, Syria, and Sudan come to the skate park every week to be taught how to skate by volunteers from all over the world as well. It is a joy to see the kids come alive while learning together and being in a community.
This is a political skate film that unveils the circumstances surrounding various groups of refugees and how they ended up in Amman, Jordan. The film highlights the skate community’s support of kids in this area, provides a glimpse into their stories and brings awareness to places and people under represented. Unlocked Films seeks to spread hope and awareness for these children and others around the world who share a similar existence.
Interview with Jesse Locke. October 2018.
For folks who have no idea about the documentary or about 7Hills Skatepark, when did you enter into this story and this film?
Jesse: When I first landed in Amman, Jordan, last March, it was with my friend and fellow videographer, Jesse Roberts from Rise Up International. Jesse already knew of Mohammed Zakaria, the skate park founder of 7Hills, a community space where kids from all over the world could have a safe place to hang and skateboard. The environment is set up for community.
Are skateboards available? What’s the access for these kids who don’t have means?
Jesse: Mohamed has set up a pipeline of volunteers from around the world, these skaters show up with boards to donate and just spend time at 7Hills with the kids. They have a set number of boards that are handed out at the classes every week, sometimes they disappear, the volunteers show up when it’s class time, the kids get bused in - from as far as an hour away. Then you watch the kids just purely have fun. Moe fundraised and got volunteers to help build the park. So the city of Amman has been a huge support, the willingness of volunteers, the folks who drive the buses that bring the kids, it’s a true and remarkable community effort. Which is exactly what intrigued me about 7 HIlls and why this story felt like it needed to be told.
What’s the global awareness of the park?
Jesse: From an international, skateboarding perspective, I think a lot of people know about the Amman skate park. There have actually been a handful of articles written about it and a website that chronicles its origin story. [https://makelifeskatelife.org/projects/jordan]
So you just got back last August - solo trip?
Jesse: Yes. It was one of those moments in your life where you can’t get an idea out of your mind. I knew I needed to go back to Amman, I had a rough outline of ideas for what I wanted to film, like Jerash the Gaza camp, but had little idea if I would gain access, if I was going to be allowed to talk to kids or even see the refugee camp for that matter. It didn’t matter if I was going to get my funding, I was going. But at the end of the day, there was no doubt in my mind that it was the next film I needed to do and therefore I needed to go back and dive deeper, spend time just being there and be open and available to how the story might unfold.
How do you think that might have served you better, to be alone and not with a company or not connected to a media outlet, just a solo film maker?Jesse: Well I was certainly focused. I knew I only had three weeks and didn’t want to take any time off because I knew I had this window of time. I had communicated enough with Moe to know that I wanted to capture footage of him as ‘a day in the life’, I wanted him to connect me with the kids. To add depth, my hope was to film three different group of children and ask them about 7hills, what it means to them, and how did they end up in Amman: Jordanians, to get a local take on the park, and to ask them what it feels like skating with all of these people from different landscapes and backgrounds. The refugee children from Gaza, to ask them what 7Hills means to them. I also wanted to talk to a Sudanese family and ask similiar questions? Amman is a melting pot. Moe describes it as the New York of the Middle East. You have all of these people from many different cultures converging into one city. Living, and sharing. But assimilation is not always pretty or easy,
Switching for a moment to the perspective of a filmmaker, what’s your take on this delicate line between documentary filming vs. fictional films and maybe discuss the process for a moment. How do you record an authentic story?
Jesse: Here’s what I think about when making documentary films, it’s so tricky to capture ‘that moment’ with a camera. After we shot the Palestinian film, I couldn’t watch the footage for like a year after because it’s so raw and intense and yet, editing wasn’t a huge process. Once I began to put the images in the timeline the story unfolded quickly. It was very special. Unlike making a fictional film where so much of the story telling happens in the editing room. Once you start into that emotional stuff - you have to stay and finish. This film was different. When we were in Amman for the first visit, the story didn’t reveal itself, it wasn’t at all clear and that was frustrating because I knew there was something there, in the 7Hills Skatepark. I used to be afraid of the spontaneity of it - of having to capture the moment there’s a lot of pressure. But what I learned the hard way was to just let my camera roll because usually when I’d turn it off the next moment was like “oh damn” - so keep rolling be prepared to use up a lot of tape. . But for this story - and this is my opinion, it takes time, you just have to spend time to get to know people. Don’t bring your camera to the first meeting. And I know that’s hard because there’s deadline. The fact that Jesse and I were there last year, establishing relationships directly, totally prepared me for this visit,. I have no doubt that because I was there before in that skate park, meeting kids, observing, talking, that I was then able to go back and have the chance to film. For example, there was a Jordanian kid last year who was a great skater but really aloof. When I returned a few months ago, he remembered me! He came up and was super excited, gave me a big hug and it was a remarkable feeling. Good stories happen over time.
Interesting, it sounds like you can struggle with the deadline and so the spontaneity becomes a sort of burden.
Jesse: It takes a certain person to be able to sit and listen and give the interview time - and then how much time - a day? Are they going to be authentic and real within the confines of the time allotted? Certainly more challenging working through a translator and another language. Moving forward, I’d like to spend more time in that interview space. To add to the complexity of my experience, I was interviewing teenagers who don’t always communicate very well. A lot of one word answers. That part was difficult.
Now that you’ve been back for a bit, is there something that makes you nostalgic or a moment that now takes on a new life?
Jesse: Well that’s a good question because one of the benefits of filming all those hours is being able to go back and not have to imagine the moments but actually be reminded of what they were like and what happened. I was looking at a moment with Moe this morning and it’s super powerful and there’s these subtle nuances that are easy to forget from memory and just images. The film is going to be AMAZING!!