Shelley Marsden looks at new documentary Hill Street, which explores the lesser-known Irish subculture of skateboarding…
THE seeds for skateboarding documentary Hill Street were planted for director JJ Rolfe some five years ago when he started working with its producer, Dave Leahy on a series of short films.
An intriguing look at the early stages of the Irish skateboarding scene and featuring the legendary U.S. skater Tony Hawk, Hill Street is as much an introduction to a subculture as it is an exploration of a sport trying to legitimise itself against the backdrop of 80s Ireland.
“We started back then talking about Dave’s idea for a film about his friend Clive Rowen’s Dublin skate shop and it sort of stuck with me”, says JJ. “I went away and wrote everything down into a treatment. The next thing I knew I was at a meeting where I was introduced as the director and that was it”.
“What interested me was exploring a story about something that was very much counter culture at its beginnings and watching it become mainstream. This coupled with the challenge of working with a DIY approach that we would have to employ to make it that sort of mimicked the movement itself excited me.”
JJ doesn’t, he points out quickly, skate-board himself. Any experiments in that area have normally ended with him falling off, but he’s into his sport: “I surf and snowboard and enjoy the freedom of movement that they have… my brief skate sessions have always reminded me of that and I recently bought myself a cruiser board and have been loving rolling around town!”
The film centres on the little-known history of skateboarding in Ireland, from its very beginnings to the present day, centred on a small independent shop called “Clive’s of Hill Street.”
Clive was and still is seen as the father of the skateboard movement in Ireland, in the pre-internet times of the 1980s. His little shop in an unlikely part of inner-city north Dublin was one of the only places that you could get skateboard equipment and information about skating, so serving as a hub for the ‘scene’.
From ‘Clive’s of Hill Street’, its owner single-handedly progressed the skate scene through the building of primitive ramps at the shop before graduating to a temporary skate park in the Top Hat Ballroom in Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin.
Clive later managed to convince the Powell Peralta ‘Bones Brigade’ Team, including the legendary Tony Hawk, to visit the skate park for a now historic demo. Interviews with Clive and other grass-roots exponents are interspersed with rare archive footage, as well as interviews with key international players.
Says JJ: “We have some great nostalgic footage from Dublin in the ’80s and ’90s. We were lucky enough to visit Tony Hawk in San Diego for an interview about his visit to Dublin which features in the film which was certainly an honour.
For its director, a history of skating in Ireland might not be something many potential viewers are aware of, but he’s been surprised by the amount of people that he’s talked to that have fond memories of visiting Clive’s up on Hill Street.
What Hill Street offers is not just an opportunity for skateboarding enthusiasts to geek out but, for those with nothing more than a passing interest in long-haired dudes doing ‘noseslides’ or ‘kickflips’, to look behind what motivated these people, to pursue a sport that they love and brought a group of otherwise unconnected kids together.
“It wasn’t a ‘class’ activity at all – there were posh kids doing it, poor kids, people from all walks of life, united by their passion, and in a country that wasn’t embracing and supporting it in the way, say, America was – at least not back in the 80s.”
JJ says his favourite aspect of bringing together all the disparate strands of Hill Street was seeing how separate stories began to link together and grow. It was also one of the trickiest aspects of bringing it to life.
“You really have to live with a film like this when you’re making it as there are so many elements to it. That was a challenge, remembering all the different aspects of the story and being true to each of them. Another challenge was that we wanted to make a story that was true to the Skating community but was still accessible to a wider audience – and I feel that we have achieved that.”
He adds: “It was incredible to me that the story was replicated in every scene that we dipped our toes into. When we we’re visiting Tony Hawk in the US, we also interviewed people from different places who pretty much had the same take as how they started off in skateboarding.
“It kind of showed how even though the Dublin and Irish scene felt that it was away from the beaten track they were keeping up with different scenes around the world.”
For the full interview, see this week’s Irish World newspaper (issue 31 May 2014).
Hill Street (Wildcard Distribution) is in selected Irish cinemas from May 23, and is available from June 2 on DVD/VOD through www.hillstreetdocumentary.com and iTunes.