Director Natalie Johns, who grew up in South Africa, has created a moving international portrait of teenage struggle and ambition, capturing the extreme highs and lows of success and failure – all framed by the thrilling backdrop of skate parks and competitions from South Africa to Los Angeles. Featuring a vibrant ensemble of young skaters, professional legends, and the memorable figure of teenage skater Thalente Biyela.
Natalie Johns: I grew up on the beach on the North Coast, so I am very connected with ocean. It’s just such a beautiful place to be growing up. As beautiful as it was though, it was often quite challenging growing up in South Africa with the amount of inequality and injustices going on. I had seen these kinds of things from a very young age, and it was quite difficult to see and make sense of. So, as beautiful as it was, there was a lot of stuff going on that was out of my control, and over time it had really started to take its toll.
In South Africa, more so than other places, I feel there’s just this huge disparity between the rich, the poor and how people lived. It was just something I couldn’t understand and this is part of the reason I left when I was 21 years old. Right about after college is when I decided I couldn’t handle being there anymore, and as I was traveling I only really started to feel like I was making sense of the world.
CR: So, would you say that your upbringing influenced you to get into film making and lead you to taking on “I Am Thalente” with such passion?
NJ: Absolutely, my upbringing and growing up defiantly left me with this desire to make sense of the world and to somehow understand where things go wrong, as well as how to be a part of the solution. Film making is my way of making sense of the world and reinterpret it to help other people understand what’s going on and even question their own perspectives on things. When you can understand one another and understand what it’s like to walk in one another’s shoes, that’s when you truly understand someone.
CR: Absolutely, that’s an incredible way to put it! I also understand that music is a passion of yours and has influenced your film-making career. These are two of the main genres we intertwine with travel at SCP. Take us through your evolution into film. How are the two inseparable in your eyes?
NJ: Film and music were always kind of my way of expressing myself in the world, mainly because I wasn’t great with words. Through music or film that’s kind of how I captured my emotions, then film began to become a way of expressing certain ways I may have been feeling or how I felt about a topic or issue. I actually passionately collected music growing up. That was my way of identifying what was going on inside of me to a degree. It was just my form of expression. In terms of film and music the two just kind of go hand-in-hand, one always complements the other. That’s the wonderful thing about what I do and how I am able to express myself. It gives me and many other people a way to just process how they are feeling inside. With a film, sometimes a soundtrack will help me direct my project.
CR: I agree, and I firmly believe music is one of those things where no matter what you do or your profession, it’s something that can inspire you to greatness at any time. So tell me, how is it that “I Am Thalente” came to be? Was it something you had conceptualized from the start, or was it a vision that gradually grew bolder over time?
NJ: So, my friend from South Africa grew up in the same area I had. She had asked me if I could help Thalente make a video to help promote his skateboarding and help him get sponsored to get him off the streets. So, the first thing I was asked to do was create this film. My first and foremost concern was how I was going to help Thalente become independent and how I was going to help him succeed. The film was my way of helping to support him and get him off the streets. Beyond the film and filming, it was just really important to me that he learned to take care of himself and build his life.
CR: How special was it to you to film this in your home country and did it add anything to the meaning of the film to you?
NJ: It was huge. It was really, really, really meaningful. As a said earlier, there were a lot of things within South Africa that were out of my control that I struggled with. Being able to come back and tell the story, it’s such a positive story of hope and potential, was like a gift for me. It’s definitely part of who I am and to give it to the world was really important.
CR: When you were learning about Thalente and his background what was your initial reaction? What was your first impression when you met him for the first time?
NJ: I found it very, very hard, and continue to, to even talk to him in the first place after how much he had been through. I was just completely overwhelmed. I just wanted to scoop him up and protect him. It’s like, “How could this be?” The image of this young boy growing up on the streets was really, really hard to reconcile. Just the darkness that he had seen on the streets. My motherly instincts just kicked into overdrive, but he opened up to me in a completely unexpected way. He literally just opened up his heart and poured it all out. It’s very hard when someone gives you that kind of glimpse inside to not have a commitment to tell the story of their life. I don’t even think I understood the commitment that it would take the see the project through. It’s just fascinating, really, really, really fascinating. Throughout the film we really fulfilled our sense of duty to one another all the way through.
CR: Expanding off of that main goal to tell Thalente’s story, how did you find the balance between skateboarding and Thalente’s background? While still adding perspectives of Tony Hawk and Kenny Anderson?
NJ: The most important thing was at the end of this, no matter whatever happened, Thalente would be independent. Whether that meant he was able to get a job or be a pro skateboarder. That was what we all felt about it. I knew that he needed to learn how to read and write and I wanted to really empower him. I knew that he was missing a father figure in his life. He also said this to me. He said, “There has to be a way to get good at skateboarding with a positive influence.”
When I reached out to my producer Colin Kennedy about the project he said that we need someone strong that would be a good example for Thalente. We wanted to make sure that when he was coming into the skateboarding community he was coming in with a big, positive role model. I always thought that Tony Hawk was a bit more unattainable. We didn’t reach out to him initially, just because I didn’t realize it. Then he reached out to us. He said that he loved Thalente, met him when he was young and always wanted to help him. To have him as a really positive influence is something really meaningful.
From a skateboarding perspective, there’s different ways to “make it”. It’s not just winning competitions. So, we wanted to find people within the industry that were not just your competition winners, they were people that could show you how to carve something our just by being unique. Kenny was amazing there, and really connected with Thalente as a free spirit. It was cool to see that Kenny was like that. That was really the thinking behind everything.
CR: Back to more of a personal note for yourself, but in a broader sense of travel, what would you suggest a first-time sightseer to go and see in South Africa? How would you direct them so they had a true sense of your country’s culture?
NJ: That’s a really hard question. I do a lot of traveling all over the world. One of the things I do is use music as my guide. I reach out to local musicians to find out what’s happening through music. I would say go find some live music and see what’s playing. In Johannesburg there are great restaurants. You definitely want to go to Durban to the skate park and see what’s going on down there. There’s some great culture down by the beachfront. Then there are beautiful places to explore — beautiful nature reserves and landscapes. There are really beautiful beaches up the coast.
CR: Absolutely, that sounds amazing! Looking a little bit towards the future, what are a few destinations that you’d like to film in? Why?
NJ: I think I would love to spend some time in Tibet. I would love to film and explore in Tibet. I would love to go on a surf adventure with my brother around the world exploring all the surf spots. He represents the surf spirit and the freedom that comes from doing it your way. I love to watch my brother surf. It’s a beautiful thing, like watching Thalente skateboard. He would decide where we would go to the different surf spots.