The explosion of documentaries onto big and small screens over the last decade is impressive. I’m not alone when I’ve proclaimed that we are in a “golden age” of documentaries. Affordable equipment helps the filmmaking process as does having more distribution channels. Filmmakers are able to produce passion projects that find audiences. Such is the case with Natalie Johns’ rousing documentary, “I Am Thalente,” which follows a once homeless South African street youth on his journey to be a professional skateboarder.

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Meeting Thalente

Filmmaker Johns, who had grown up in South Africa, had been working on projects involving human interest and social change when she met talented skateboarder and street kid Thalente Biyela through friend Tammy-Lee Smith. Thalente (pronounced “Tal-uhnt”) was known as the “mayor” of a group of homeless skateboarding kids in Durban, South Africa. Immediately Johns saw that Thalente was driven to rise up from the streets to find a meaningful life as a skateboarder.

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This wasn’t some pipe dream either. Thalente had talent; coaches at the Durban Skateboarding Camp had scouted him. He had already met famed boarder, Tony Hawk during a South African visit. Although Thalente was a street kid with a literacy level of a 9-year-old, he says in the film that, “if you skate with good people it’s got to happen, the influence is good.”

Three years documenting Thalente

Filmed for over three years of Thalente’s life, the film documents his journey from South Africa to California to meet his idols and skateboarding greats, Kenny Anderson, Tony Hawk, and Colin Kennedy (who became a producer).

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The documentary is rich in archival footage of a younger Thalente skating in South Africa as well as his skating trials and triumphs in the U.S., where he hopes to get a sponsor and become self-supporting through the sport.

The film presents numerous inspirational moments for the young skater. Kenny Anderson explains to Thalente in the film how he too came from a tough home and how skateboarding helped save his life.

One can only hope the same success will befall Thalente. But there are struggles. Skate parks are different than street skating. Thalente notes in the film, “…the other skateboarders used their boards like weapons, which is intimidating. But encouraging too.”

From film festivals to distribution

A darling on the film festival circuit, “I Am Thalente” won the coveted Audience Award for Best Documentary in 2015 at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

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But that doesn’t always translate to a film’s distribution in theaters or streaming platforms. Working with crowd funder, Seed & Spark, the documentary raised funds and distribution via Seed & Spark, as well as various other VOD platforms. In addition, there are also theatrical screenings in various U.S. cities, as well as a distribution deal with iTunes beginning May 13th.

Regardless of whether you’re a fan of the sport of skateboarding, expect to cheer Thalente in the stirring, “I Am Thalente.” The film is 80 minutes and Not Rated.

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