Birling the Skatepark Effect
Wesley Lee, Drop down to 50-50. Cayer By Adam Wawrzynczak There was once a time when skateparks acted primarily as warm-up spots....
In September of 2017, I released a full-length skate film, Stigma, in the small town of Nelson, BC. Shortly after, I heard about the Vladimir Film Festival, an annual event going on its seventh year that takes place in Croatia. I emailed a festival organizer with a link to Stigma to inquire about participation. Time passed and I eventually forgot I had sent the email. One morning I awoke to a message in my inbox from Nikola Racan, a head organizer of Vladimir. He was stoked on my film and said that if I made anything new over the summer, I had an official invite to premier it at Vladimir. With a knee surgery on the mend, I was motivated to film a new project over the summer specifically for the festival. My film, Waltz, was dedicated to the beauty and elegance of skating, using a soundtrack entirely composed of jazz and fusion music.
Nikola mentioned I could bring a homie with me. My friend Luke Hayes, who has clips in the video, was down to join me. We booked tickets and eventually set off for the small Croatian fishing town of Fažana, which is home to a population of only a couple thousand. The town, located in the Croatian region of Istria, was as far away from the blown-out tourist-trap cities as could be. We flew into Venice, Italy and a festival-arranged shuttle drove us over three hours the rest of the way. Eventually we turned off the six-lane highway to a two-lane leading to Fažana. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Marina Jakulić, a festival organizer in charge of transportation and accommodations. We were shown to our shared apartment after meeting festival MC and organizer Nikola Racan himself.
Fažana was very quiet when we arrived, as we had come a couple of days earlier than the rest of the festival-goers. The town was quaint, humble, and as colourful as I had expected a small Adriatic settlement to be. As the festival approached, we started to meet crew after crew of skaters who had come from all over the world to show their work through photo exhibitions, documentaries, and traditional skate films. The normally culturally homogenous town was quickly taken over by the sounds of powerslides and Ollies, and I quickly realized why Fažana was the perfect place for skaters to gather: the sea was warm, coffee breaks were long, and nobody ever felt the need to lock their doors. The locals accepted the influx of business graciously and were almost always patient as we tried to figure out the currency.
Thursday, September 27th, was the first night of the festival and took place in the 1970’s Yugoslavian Brioni Hotel, with its original interior intact. There was a skate market outside featuring independent European brands. Snacks and wine were served as everyone enjoyed a multimedia exhibition to start the night. A multitude of diverse films played before mine on the opening night, most notably a video called Autobahn 58from Anton Beliaev. My film screened mid-way through the night and everyone was stoked on it—many people mentioned they hadn’t had much exposure to Canadian skateboarding at the grassroots level. The night didn’t go without a couple technical difficulties, but they were shrugged off and the opening night was considered a success.
I realized mid-way through the night that there was no pretentiousness at this festival, and viewers were just as stoked on homie videos as they were professional edits. Everyone had left whatever little egos they had at home. I instantly started to get a family-like vibe from all in attendance. After the screenings and exhibitions, everyone headed to Kasarna, the local clubhouse. Kasarna featured a steep yet solid mini-ramp, a full-sized ping-pong table and a bar. Here we were quickly introduced to shots of the local drink called Rakija from festival organizer and bartender Tebor Rep. Many people already knew who I was due to presenting my film earlier on, which made introductions easy. Everyone here wanted to be here— Fažana wasn’t a place one just stumbles across. The environment was accepting and fun, and socializing went without any judgement despite being in a room full of international strangers.
The rest of the weekend featured venues in a modern theatre, cobblestone squares, and a historic private outdoor theatre on the island of Brijuni. Around 200 people gathered for each night. Notable projects included Kuba Kaczmarczyk’s Neverwhere, a Photosynthesis animation by Marcus Craven and Absurd at the Azov Sea by Absurd Skateboards. A highlight of the festival for me took place on Saturday night, in the courtyard of the mid 17th-century Venetian fortress of Kaštel, Pula. Rick Charnoski and Coan “Buddy” Nichols of Six-Stair, the producers of Jeff Grosso’s Loveletters and various Antihero films, had brought something special from LA: an installation entitled Behind the Fence.
Before us stood four giant projector screens which made up a cube which people could walk into. Four Red cameras had shot a backyard pool session from the bottom of the bowl looking up, so that when the footage was mirrored and projected on the exterior of each screen, it would appear as if you’re standing in the bottom of the pool watching the session go on around you once you walk inside.
“The session took place at the Hollywood Pool,” said Buddy, “and featured Robbie Russo, Ronnie Sandoval, Raney Beres, Peter Hewitt, Al Partanen, Tom Remillard, Chris Cope, Cedric Pavich and a handful of others, along with Jeff Grosso and Steve Olson hanging out as well. We had guys from different generations: 20 years old to like 50 years old. The idea came about nearly 15 years ago, but about eight months ago an invite to Vladimir made us make it happen. Skateboarding is real; it’s something that nobody else can tell you how to do and it’s up to you for what you want it to be. These guys from Vladimir do the festival for that same reason. Its authentic.”
When I went inside to experience it for myself, I was blown away, feeling as if I was going to get hit by a runaway board at any moment. The session was uncut which increased the continuity and simulation of actually being within the sunny LA backyard pool. The installation screens were overtaken by wind just as the crew was busted by the police in the video, which created an eerily beautiful conclusion to the one-hour experience.
By the week after, everyone had left town besides us, and we spent a couple days in the bigger cities of Rijeka and Zagreb. Once we got back to Fažana, before catching our transfer to fly back out of Venice, I was able to sit down with the exhausted Nikola to look back on the festival, now a week behind us, and to ask why he believes the festival is still genuine, even after almost a decade.
“I think everyone this year took something home with them, even if it was just a connection. The festival is still independent, it’s pure, and it’s still innocent. Not having much infrastructure gave us the advantage—it’s not like bigger cities which are more blown-out,” says Nikola. “Most of the accommodations are paid for through the food and drinks we sell at Kasarna. We aren’t trying to make money off of anyone. We are always trying to do something new—it’s still a small event, but we want to keep it that way. “
With those final words, Nikola summarized the event perfectly. As we traveled home I reflected on what Vladimir had given me: hope that truly core skateboarding could exist and that skateboarding is the ultimate universal medium to connect with others. I left with friends and connections from all over the globe, new ideas for projects and the appreciation that I was blessed with an opportunity to be a part of the bigger picture of skateboarding.
Story and photos by Spencer Legebokoff