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Interview with Wu Wei Films’ skate filmmaker Tomas Crowder
When I first read about Wu Wei Films' skate documentary, The Other Che, I found myself intrigued. Not only did the film have to do with skateboarding and Cuba, two things I have a deep affection for, it also promised to touch upon socio-political issues as well. For me, that made the film a home run. I was driven to track down the filmmaker, 39 year old Tomas Crowder, to find out more. I wanted to know, among other things, what effect he thought America injecting itself into Cuba's skate scene would have on the Cuban people. Crowder, I discovered, is from Argentina and travels often. Getting him to put his suitcase down long enough for an interview was not an easy task. I finally managed to catch up with him this week and got my answers. Here's what Crowder had to say:
Gonzalez: Where in Argentina are you originally from and how long have you been a filmmaker?
Crowder: I´m originally from Mar del Plata, a coastal city that is the cradle of surf and skate in Argentina, South America. I would like to think that Film making was one of the things that were dormant inside of me since I was born. I was able to translate that inner passion into deeds with my first film in 2005.
Gonzalez: How long have you been skateboarding and what is your favorite skateboard set-up?
Crowder: I started skateboarding in my hometown back in 1985. I would skate to the beach, surf as well as mini ramp a bit. I almost broke my nose once on a tail-tap in a big skate pool. At the time I was competing on a professional level riding waves, so I chose to fully dedicate my efforts to surfing. Afterwards, when it came to skateboarding I was mostly cruising, flowing and basically just enjoying the ride. My favorite set-up now is a gift from legendary skater Todd Swank. He came to Cuba to support my ongoing film project and ended up giving it to me as a present. It was his very own skateboard which he skated with in La Habana, Cuba. It is an Angel Ramirez´s Foundation skateboard with an old school legendary design and 60mm-95/100a wheels.
Gonzalez: I also heard that you are an avid snowboarder and surfer. Do you have a favorite set-up for those sports as well?
Crowder: Yes. I love board sports. In the Argentinean Patagonian Mountain Range we have some incredible, untapped snowboarding potential. I´m mostly a free-rider and backcountry type of snowboarder. I like to hike with some core local friends and connect with the mountain scenery. I enjoy good, deep powder and the solitude inherent in a back country type of snowboard set-up. In Surfing, I have two Channel Islands Al Merrick 6.1/6.3s and a 5.10 Surf Prescription fish surfboard. The 5.10 Surf Prescription fish surfboard was given to me as a present from the legendary Coco Nogales, a big wave surfer from Puerto Escondido, Mexico.
Gonzalez: What was it like growing up in Argentina, especially in regards to skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding?
Crowder: Being born in Argentina and choosing the then completely unknown action sports lifestyle was a challenge back in the eighties. You didn't have any equipment back then. Everything needed to be imported from the states. Our economy was always changing and critical, so importing goods on a regular basis was not possible. I basically learned to surf, skate and snowboard by reading action sports magazines from the United States that came into the country from time to time. The magazines did not come into the country on a regular basis. Watching two or three VHS videos that were smuggled into the country through someone who traveled to the States helped too. Instead of being bummed about the whole thing, I enjoyed the challenge. I surfed, skated and snowboarded, with no crowds, in a typical countryside and rather cold weather. Having to struggle and endure to do what I love made me appreciate everything three-fold.
Gonzalez: What is your most cherished memory associated with that time?
Crowder: Back then, in Argentina, you had to truly love and be really passionate about adapting a lifestyle that was previously unseen and unheard of. Before my generation there were some random, older guys with different connections to the outside world. They were able to travel and built something down here but I was younger and not connected to them. No one surfed in my family. My older sister would skate a little but that was it. Every person would look at you and your board kind of weird. They just didn't get it. They assumed that you were either crazy or full of nonsense. I knew from the heart that I was neither of those things. I knew that I was just connecting with my inner self, nature and my urban environment. Looking in retrospective, I understand why many of my close friends in the action sport scene left what they loved to become civilized. They either yielded to social pressure or gave in to the need to become someone else. They were obviously pushed by old fashioned parents, girlfriends or by the false need to get a proper career. Time has proven that my gut instinct to simply stick with what I love was right. I have been able to make a living out of it. I have a lot of memories from those early days. The first memories that come to mind are getting up early to go surfing in the spring and listening to AC/DC full blast on my Walkman. I remember getting on a bus, hitchhiking and walking a couple of miles just to finally be able to enjoy good, uncrowded waves and a day at the beach with a couple of my friends.
Gonzalez: When was the last time you were in Argentina?
Crowder: I'm in Argentina as we speak. I spent the last 10 years travelling and working between Puerto Rico, Panama, Brazil, China and Cuba. I spend a lot of time travelling the world working on projects like The Other Che and other pro skaters' film projects as well as helping governments to reconnect with youth through their love of action sports. I like to think that people always have an atavic relationship with their birthplace. Now that I am back in Argentina I will try to pass on my extensive experience and knowledge of my beloved lifestyle to my fellow countryman. It seems like it will be a lot of flying miles between the United States and Argentina for me from now on.
Gonzalez: What are some of your favorite Argentinean skate, surf and snowboard spots?
Crowder: For skating it is the Mar del Plata's coastal strip and "el poolcito." For surfing it is the "Yacht Club Chapadmalal Diba" in Mar del Plata, the "La Esco point" in Necochea City and anywhere else near Mar del Plata. For backcountry snowboarding it would be anywhere in Bariloche, Las Leñas and Ushuaia, Fireland.
Gonzalez: How does the skate and surf scene in Argentina differ from the United States?
Crowder: It differs in terms of crowds. If you get up early and spend 15 minutes on a cool, coastal, car trip through the countryside looking for waves in Mar del Plata you can still find fairly good, uncrowded waves to surf. My Aussie friend and former Tracks Staff Photographer came here after travelling the World and liked what he saw. In terms of the industry, in the United States you can go surfing, skating or snowboarding with most of the owners, marketing managers or employees. Sharing ideas for innovative, out of the norm, action sports film projects like the ones I´m developing become an organic experience. They quickly understand the potential and that I'm taking the lifestyle to the next level. In Argentina 90% of the top executives in the action sport scene don't surf, skate, snow or engage in the lifestyle on a daily basis. This makes it complicated but also my duty to reconnect them with the core local scene.
Gonzalez: Have you been back to Brazil since the filming of Surfing Favela and do you think that your film has had any effect on the surf scene?
Crowder: Yes, I´m in contact with Bocao and the kids at the Favelas portrayed in my documentary. Brazil is another second home for me. I made my first solo trip there when I was just 15 years old. Afterwards, I went there 10 years in a row to escape from the cold Argentinean winters. I spent time wetsuit surfing off the warmer, Rio de Janeiro shores. I also lived and worked there for two years quite recently. I was representing the biggest, action sports trade show and creating the first action sports magazine as well as filming. To seize the power of the Brazilian marketplace, you have to realize that 80% of the country's population lives within 60 miles from the ocean. It is no wonder that it has a big industry and four surfers in the ASP's top 15. The potential for action sports is huge and I´m doing my part to help. Nevertheless, the fact is that my documentary helped big time in portraying that the country's multimillion dollar market has completely turned its back to the kids who surf in under privileged communities. It also helped show that not only is surfing a big part of Latin America, it is also where Paulo Paulinho, one of the junior World surfing champs, came from. By filming the documentary I was able to get financial support from Jack Johnson. Surfrider Foundation used my film to open their annual meeting in the United States and that helped the community and surfing scene too.
Gonzalez: I read that you first went to Cuba in 2005. Is that correct? How often do you get to travel to Cuba? How has the Cuban skate scene changed from then until now?
Crowder: You are correct. For two years I lived 15 days per month there. Cuba is awesome. You go back to the roots in everything you want to do there, since everything is kind of complicated to achieve or get. It is a truly humbling experience and I love their personality and positive attitude. We say we are in a huge economic crisis. I suggest people go there, live there and endure what they endure to understand that we are not even close. I have an outmost respect for anyone living in Cuba. I also consider myself a tireless advocate for action sports there. I know I have helped local skate leader Che Pando, the INDER Sports Government and hundreds of kids to get proper skate equipment. I was able to help through the many donations that I got from the United States and Germany. Red Bull also supported me a lot back in the days. They donated a mini ramp and let me work there. There is still a long way to go. We need all the support possible.
Gonzalez: How does the Cuban skate scene compare to that of Brazil, Argentina and America?
Crowder: Argentina and Brazil are more developed than Cuba in that you have skate companies where you can get equipment when yours is broken, but it is still Latin America. In Latin America the industry is getting mature and real practitioners are getting relevant, industry positions little by little. The United States is the existing Mecca for action sports. In the United States you can walk out of your backyard and be able to get a board. You can get sponsored at 16 years old and make lots of money out of it. You have a big media and TV support system as well.
Gonzalez: I know that the Cuban government has relaxed a bit in recent times regarding tourism and travel into the country. In your opinion, what else has changed in Cuba since Fidel Castro released the reigns to his brother Raul?
Crowder: I always invite people from the U.S. to travel to Cuba and see things for themselves. It is certainly not true what most of the media portrays from either side. I´ve taken more than 50 people from the states over there, which I didn't know or have any influence over, and their response was overwhelmingly positive. Kids nowadays want to enjoy life. Our beloved lifestyle doesn't have politics or a flag attached. It is the best way to bridge existing gaps. I don't take sides on a political level. I respect both sides, if there really are two sides! I´m an ambassador of good will and my struggle goes way beyond narrow minded politicians who don't understand that we are simply the future. We came to change things and break down borders and limits. Who else other than action sports practitioners to do so right?
Gonzalez: How difficult was it getting the Cuban Sports Ministry to allow you and the others into the country to film The Other Che?
Crowder: In 2005 it was really difficult to start my work and somehow it still is difficult. There were no existing events, projects or anything like that. In a way, they felt that action sports were for rich kids who could afford an expensive surfboard or skateboard. I can totally understand their point. But I showed that it was not the case and that this is the choice of new generations everywhere! I also took one sport minister to China to meet government officials who were opening a big skatepark in Shanghai, so everything flowed after that. To be sincere, I´ve found the Cuban government quite cooperative once they understood that I was really giving something back to the people and not only taking.
Gonzalez: Is the full version of the film complete?
Crowder: I´m after the last needed funds as we speak. Red Bull and Fuel TV helped big time. I´m trying to get one more core brand or investor involved. I'd like to find one that will jump at the opportunity to truly help the skateboarding revolution worldwide. If anyone is interested in being a part of this project, contact me. We have also created a crowd funding project where people can donate any amount possible and win some cool prizes.
Gonzalez: What was your most memorable moment while filming The Other Che?
Crowder: I have more than one but I will sum it up by saying it was helping a Cuban, autistic skate kid as well as watching the locals enjoying the visits of the pros. It was something they thought impossible due to the existing prohibitions.
Gonzalez: What message do you want viewers to take away from watching the film?
Crowder: I'm pioneering the way we portray action sports to bigger audiences. I love typical surf, skate and snow films. With no offense to those types of films, action sports have left our niche a long time ago. It is my responsibility, as a core member of this tribe, to show others that this is a new lifestyle and not a fashion. Your life will change if you get on a board. I know that is true because it has happened to me already. It gave me the opportunity to help change the lives of some cool, underprivileged kids. Last but not least, I want viewers to understand that the word Crisis in Chinese means opportunity to change. I urge anyone to endure like the Cubans and don't let society tell us that we have to abandon what we love.
Gonzalez: Please tell us a little bit about the 23 Y G Crew and Alejandro Che Pando.
Crowder: 23 y G is the place in Cuba where the local skaters started to gather. Che Pando, as I call him, is the unofficial skate leader. He loves Cuba and works from the inside to help other kids as much as possible. I´m in direct contact with them and plan to visit Cuba very soon, hopefully in November. I hope to get more support and then translate that support to them.
Gonzalez: What other people may skate fans expect to be introduced to while watching the film?
Crowder: A ton of skateboarding icons are in the film. Ryan Sheckler, Rick McCrank, Todd Swank, Bryce Kanights and Zered Basset are a part of it. So are Quim Cardona, The Tampa AM/PRO guys, Chris Nieratko, Scuba Steve, Mike Anderson, Ron Denis and Jody Morris. It also features Cuban skaters by the names of Gabo, Fernando, Gambao and Luber. Local photographer Arien Chang and rapper Edgaro were a part of the film as well.
Gonzalez: I read that Che would like to see increased access for the Cuban people to skate equipment, skate shops, sponsorships and foreign travel for skaters but has concerns about Cuba's skate scene becoming commercialized in the process. Do you think that it is possible to have one without the other? Don't commercialization and the things he mentioned go hand in hand?
Crowder: You are right. It is not possible to have one without the other in the existing capitalistic scenario. Cuba is a blank canvas. There are no skateparks, no brands, no advertising, no industry and I´m willing to help Cubans find a middle way that is more appropriate for them. It certainly seems a quixotic idea, but my work with brands and action sports films has given me all the right background to go for it.
Gonzalez: What affects do you think outside attention will have on Cuba's youth?
Crowder: Cuban youth are very clever, informed and opinionated. I´m more concern about the people willing to come into Cuba. I worry, more than anything else, that they will try buying the youth through money. I´m not a teacher but we live in a world that is based on greed and commercialism. These two factors go against the pureness of enjoying surfing, skating and snowboarding. We need to find a happy medium, at least in our niche. We need to create our own rules and update them based on what we feel is right. On the other hand, with the support of Red Bull and government permission, I transported three different athletes and four musicians outside Cuba. All of them had a blast but decided to go back to Cuba. I'd like to think that through the experience they learned that crisis is everywhere nowadays. I believe that it makes sense to stay in your country and do your part to change things.
Gonzalez: What other film projects are you currently working on?
Crowder: I am working on a project in China, another two in the United States, a third one in Brazil and another one in Cuba. I have plenty of work! One of the projects involves a surfing and music icon and has the possibility of Hollywood support. Another one involves girls in the action sports scene and the third one I need to keep secret. You can be sure I´m really busy taking my lifestyle to the next level.
Gonzalez: What advice would you give to aspiring skate documentary makers?
Crowder: Orson Welles created one of the biggest films in history and didn't study cinema, so support your local filmmaker. Talk to him and help him. If you love what you do and want to get into filmmaking, go get a camera. Then get a cool team of friends and go for it. Once you are there filming, try to concentrate on the many differences, cool stories and characters abundant in our core scene. Don't copy the typical action sport flick. Those types of films are necessary for aspiring kids to perform better but boring to watch for the rest of the world. There are trillions of those films already!
Gonzalez: If you could only be remembered for one thing, what would you want that one thing to be?
Crowder: I'd want to be remembered for showing my beloved ones, with concrete deeds, that nothing is impossible. I had the chance to show that to them three times already in my life! I'd also like to be remembered for being on a higher spiritual level and living a simple, fulfilling life.
My children are skateboarders and I have a history of following the sport.
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