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Communist-Era Czech Skate Punks Plunged into Limelight

Simon Safranek’s docu “King Skate,” screening at Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, shines a light on communist-era Czech skate punks. In researching the project, says Safranek, “I just realized that the stories, the memories, are beautiful.”

The Prague-based journalist and DJ was inspired to produce his first feature-length theatrical nonfiction film by a book he encountered a few years back, “Prkýnka na maso jsme uřízli.” It translates, roughly, as “We Sawed Our Cutting Boards Off” but the sexual double-entendre from the Czech does not come through, the director says.

“They had photos they took themselves,” he recalls, “and I was thinking the photos are great but it would be awesome if they had some footage. Because skateboarding to me is really emotion. And the joy of it is motion as well.”

They did, as it turns out — and the determination and ingenuity of skate punks unlucky enough to be caught behind the Iron Curtain during the 80s comes through clearly in the never-before-seen 8mm and 16mm film the director found.

One of stars, Petr Forman, one of Milos Forman’s twin sons who remained in Czechoslovakia after their auteur father moved to the U.S. in the early 1970s, was particularly hooked on the forbidden sport, Safranek learned.

At one point the younger Forman, after struggling to find a skateboard in Prague where no shops stocked them, asked his father to bring one back from the U.S. for him on his next visit. “What is it?” his father replied.

Czechs may not have held a monopoly on curiosity about boarding, Safranek says, but they were probably unique in earning special treatment by secret police for gathering to try out homemade gear. Other challenges ensured only the most determined skate punks got to hit the homemade ramps constructed wherever the self-taught boarders could build them.

Competitions were often held in the historic spa town of Karlovy Vary, where the film had its world premiere, because the city has always been “a little different,” says Safranek. As a part of the former Sudetenland in the Western end of then-Czechoslovakia, Czechs in the town “could even get broadcasts from Western Europe,” the director adds.

The most compelling images on grainy TV screens for this tribe were those of West Germans with cool, new, store-bought boards, which they would show off when they came to competitions that were officially registered with Czech authorities as held by youth fitness organizations, which the state encouraged, says Safranek.

When they did meet up, legends such as Ivan Zobak Pelikan, Forman and Ludek Vasa often had to make do with homemade boards bearing wheels made from hockey pucks, spinning on bearings extracted from hand grenades, as the former champs confess in “King Skate.”

The fast-cut film, which rocks along with a suitably punk soundtrack including tracks from the Clash, the Sex Pistols and their Czech counterparts Visaci zamek, and the more New Wave bands Garaz and Miro Zbirka.

“I think the music really transports you to the atmosphere,” says Safranek, admitting that music rights were the single biggest expense in the micro-budget production.

Employing archive news footage of the Velvet Revolution along with communist-era TV news shows voicing concern over dangerous, decadent Western influences, King Skate drew laughs and hoots at its Karlovy Vary screening — along with sympathetic groans during footage of painful wipeouts on concrete worthy of docus like “Dogtown and Z-Boys.”

“King Skate” is being distributed in the Czech Republic by arthouse chain Aero Film. It was produced by Katerina Cerna of Prague’s Negativ.

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