Oscar Winner Zamarin Wahdat

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Congratulations on your Oscar! That’s amazing.

Thank you so much! It was quite a surprise. It was already a surprise that we got nominated and then that you actually win it was strange. It was not expected.

Was it a dream come true?

Yeah, I think it was subconsciously. Of course, when you are in filmmaking winning an Oscar is a dream come true. But it was a dream come true a little bit too soon. I was just thinking “I’m not ready for this. I’m not ready to receive an Oscar.” Also, the project took three years from start to finish so it was a long process and that’s why it was so unreal.

What have you been doing since?

I am in Hamburg right now. I was living in the US for a very long time, for four years and last year was my year where I was just living on set. I was traveling a lot, shooting and working but mostly in the US so I was based there. And then Corona happened…It was either being stuck in the US or  going home.

It bothered me a lot that this is happening right now because I was just in Moria* and working there. The virus made me leave the place and the people and made me worry a lot about what’s happening there. I have been working so much in film and in the industry that I wanted this year to work a little bit more with refugees and girls who don’t have a lot, especially kids. And then I had to go home… It’s actually interesting that you reached out to me because your magazine is also connected to the next project I’m doing. I am working on this documentary based in Berlin but it’s about this girl Sarah Mardini and her sister. They swam over from Turkey to Greece as refugees in 2015, when they were quite young. The boat they were on stopped working and she and her sister swam the boat with 20 other refugees in it, for three hours, to the shore. Her sister was going to compete in the Olympics this year until they got postponed. But Sarah couldn’t really swim anymore after the incident because of her injuries.

The documentary follows her and her trial because she got imprisoned due to her work as an activist and rescue swimmer. So yeah, it’s a topic that is always catching up with me.

Would you say it is your favorite topic to work with?

Yes, I realized that I do like to work on stories related to this topic. I mean sometimes it’s also subconsciously. I’m dealing a lot with Afghanistan obviously because it’s my home. I left when I was really young and I always wanted to create stories about Afghanistan in combination with girls and their dreams. Since I was a little kid I always had dreams and visions and those girls in Skateistan also have that. For me, that was a very natural connecting point.

My primary thing is doing camerawork which is similar to sports in a way, you also have to be very physically fit for it. It’s also a lot of men in this field, especially in the technical camera field. The majority of people are men, so it was quite a challenge. I think that connected me very well to the little girls in Skateistan because skateboarding is considered a “boy thing”. Especially in their situation; they are skateboarding and growing up in Afghanistan where it is even harder for girls to convince their parents. Boys don’t really have a lot of convincing to do.

I think I really like to work with girl characters who want to achieve something and who do it despite their circumstances. They still keep going. It’s something I’m really drawn to. The same goes for the swimmers and the documentary I’m doing now, it’s about these two sisters who are so strong in their character and who don’t give up on their dreams. Those are the stories I really connect to because I think at times I was in the same boat and sometimes I still am.

During my school years, I was always told “Zama, your dreams are unrealistic.” I heard this alot. I’m glad I didn’t stop dreaming but I kept it more to myself. I dreamt more in silence but still did what I had to do for it. I kept pushing myself. Even going to New York was something I was hiding in the beginning. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I was just thinking “I have this dream and this wish and maybe it works out.” In the end, it did work out.

I like challenges and I’m drawn to stories with characters that face challenges. There is something about documentaries which is so raw and real because you connect to the people. Even when the project is finished it’s not finished. You’re in touch with them, you care about them. You try to help in any way you can.

Where did all of this start? When did you get into filmmaking?

It was in England during my last year of school. Before, I did a lot of photography. I focused on photography and journalism. But I took one class which was screenwriting, through that course I got to know my first collaborator. He was also a student and he asked me if I wanted to shoot. I told him “Well, yes but I never did it before. So it will be my first time if you want to do it. Sure!” That’s how I got into it. I got to work with a lot of creative people and realized how much I love cinematography and putting the story from script to screen and being the translator from words to images.

That year in England was the most fruitful time for me, where I figured out what I wanted to do and what I loved doing. But the same year, 2012, was also the hardest year of my life because my dad got really sick and he passed away. I was torn between being there for my family and living the life I started to love and enjoy. It was a really hard time. I felt guilty for missing the thing I loved to do but I also wanted to be at home and fully present.

My dad also really loved films. I think he is the reason I got into film subconsciously. We were early risers and in the morning we always watched movies on the couch. He was the person who I talked to about the ideas I had, the films I was watching and suddenly he was gone. That was really difficult. That’s also why I didn’t stay in England after university. I fell into a hole.

Well, that’s how my filmmaking started and then came to a pause. It’s not that I gave up on my dream but it was so painful that I started to give up a little and just started to work a day job. I was at home because my mom was alone and someone had to be with her. You know how it is with Afghan families “You can’t leave your mom alone!” so I took the burden on me. “I have to be here now and have to make sure she is good.” But at the same time, I put everything aside which I really wanted to do.

There was this one point that really triggered me. My sister was worried about me being stuck here and she asked me one simple question and I couldn’t answer it. That showed me that I was really unhappy. She wrote me a letter saying “Just write down 10 things you want to do and promise me you will do one of them this year.” I just wrote down “I want to see the northern lights.” That changed everything. Because of this letter, I started to live again.

I packed my stuff and went to Iceland without a return ticket and promised myself that I would not come home until I see those lights. It was in Iceland where one thing let to the other. I applied to NYU Film school and everything fell into place. I got a scholarship, so I packed and went on my way to become a cinematographer and storyteller.

New York was a boot camp. In a really short amount of time, we had to shoot, direct and write. My life was just becoming film, camera, and storytelling. It was a really good time. I think my real filmmaking career started in 2014 when I went to New York and committed full time to the studies and the job. That’s also where I got to know my professor and left for Afghanistan.

Can you tell us a bit more about how you got involved in the Skateistan project?

Yes! So my professor found out that there is a girl who is originally from Afghanistan who speaks the language. She wanted me to translate a lot of documentary work which was not related to the skate girls. I started to work on the side for her voluntarily during my studies and translated a lot of footage.

When she got this project she said “I got a girl, I know who I’m going to take with me.” That’s how I actually got involved. I left university earlier to be on this project. I thought “I don’t care. I don’t mind that I’m not going to be there for the last 2 months of university. I’m just going to go.”

We went twice, it was also my first time back home in Afghanistan. It was very interesting but also very emotional. I’m always looking for a place I can call home and somehow I felt home. Even though I wasn’t. It was this sense of belonging.

Is there anything that stuck to you from working on the set of Skateistan?

I think what I realized the most was how I loved working with the girls. All those girls wanted that I learn a lot and taught me how to skateboard, they just wanted to be there with me. I really connected with them when I was behind the camera. I was a girl for everything on that set. I was the second unit camera, the assistant, the interviewer. Sometimes my teacher just let me direct because she said “You connect with them much better than I do.” For me, the most important time was when I was with the girls, even without the camera.

There was one moment where I actually had to be the second camera. I saw the girls practicing and riding their skateboards. They were in a circle and practicing tick-tacking. I suddenly took the camera and stood in the middle of the circle with it. I started following them with the camera, they saw me and started smiling at me. They all had these really honest and excited faces as they were interacting with me. They looked past the camera, straight at me. That was a really precious moment, maybe my favorite moment during the whole shoot.

There were a couple of other moments but it was mostly when I was alone with them that I really enjoyed it. They were just themselves around me because I could understand everything they said, it just felt like “Now we are really telling their stories.”

So do you know how to skate now?

Yes! I actually do. I have my own skateboard now. It’s nice how they taught me. Of course, I continued to practice by myself but they just loved teaching me something. It made them really happy.