Filmmaker Brett Novak is turning skateboarding videos into an art form. Novak, who started uploading videos in 2005, has steadily grown the audience of his YouTube channel, Bragic, over the past seven years; it now boasts over 15 million views. "Kilian Martin: India Within", uploaded on April 24, 2013, is the latest in a long evolution from plain-Jane skate videos to a whole new vision of what skateboarding can be.
"India Within" starts off with a close up of a creaking wooden oar joint. It's several colorful layers of paint worn through to bare wood. The oars are fastened with a length of rope. The oar itself, a long bamboo pole fashioned with a flat paddle, rows intermittently into view. The distinctive groan of tired wood puts us instantly in a place of eras overlapping; HD video and the YouTube framing are juxtaposed with old world, yet still current India.
But this isn't just another beautifully shot travel film, espousing the perpetual conundrum of modern India, with its living history and riot of colors. It's also not a skate film, set to heroic or rousing music, filled with death defying tricks, both on the board and in editing. This, and Novak's other films, are if anything dance films. "India Within" features skater Killan Martin moving through an urban Indian locale on his board, or multiple boards, interacting with the found spaces. The mosaic of music is moving, and the setting could hardly be called less than mesmerizing, but it's the movement of body and board together that really make this short film something special.
There are tricks, of course, but the choreography starts slow, with fantastically agile moves that are at least still understandable. In one shot Martin rides the skateboard up a vertical wall, ending in a handstand. He then manipulates the board with his feet to ride back down the wall. The trick becomes both its parts: the mechanics of the actions, but also the simultaneous whole. Martin has the practiced and performed movements of a dancer.
Martin's languid, airy turns are not the moves usually associated with skateboarding. The board becomes pointe shoes in ballet or an apparatus in gymnastics, a tool for making full body lyrical movement. Just when you've adjusted to this slowed pace, your eyes are met with nearly stationary, but intricately fast footwork and pirouettes. His feet move along the board as though it were glued to the ground. After a wide spin the board is on its side and you can't remember how he got it there. His jumps and slides require balance corrections that come at what feel like impossible speeds.
There is something of the ballerina in "India Within," something of the tango dancer, balanced on a strip of wood. And while Novak's short films are a new direction in both skateboarding and dance, it will be interesting to see if he can continue to push the medium. The question is whether the skateboarding can borrow further still from dance and come closer to choreography. Instead of a collection of moves executed in order, the performances can become something made to be seen instead of made to be accomplished. When you watch, do you see a dancer, a skateboarder, or has the line become fantastically blurred?
View all of Bret Novak's short films on his YouTube channel, Bragic at youtube.com/user/Bragic.