I had the chance to talk exclusively to Thalente Biyela and director Natalie Johns fresh off of Wednesday’s announcement that I Am Thalente tied for the Documentary Audience Award at the LA Film Festival. Pretty amazing, especially considering that the film was rejected the first time it was submitted. Just goes to show what type of people both Biyela and Johns are– perseverant, determined, and all around awesome and uplifting people. We begin:
How was last night’s premiere?
It was unexplainable, you had to be in it to describe what it felt like. It was a mixture of things, but for the most part it felt good. It was great to see the film unfold into this amazing thing that had been in the works for a very long time. It felt good to see it on the big screen. I didn’t go to bed until 3:30 am [last night], my mind was racing. I couldn’t go to bed, I was so excited about it.
Can you believe it?
It is still really hard to believe all that has happened in my life, where I am and how far I’ve come. Obviously it’s sinking in, and now I’m trying to live up to it and own it in a way. It’s still very fresh. More cool things keep happening, my life keeps changing every day. I keep growing and learning as a person.
What has been one of the best compliments you’ve received?
Oh I don’t know, I think maybe Tony Hawk acknowledging me as a person. Him being one of my biggest fans is like the craziest thing.
What was your first experience with Tony Hawk?
Video games, that was my first ever experience. My best friend Jake from Jersey played video games– I’ve never been into them– but that was how I found out about him. I didn’t know he was an actual person, but then I obviously grew to know that he was. Then when I got to meet him I was like, ‘Wow!’ I mean, he asked me if he could give me product. It’s so cool, man.
Who is your favorite skater now?
Oh no doubt Kenny [Anderson]. Hands down. He’s got swag, he’s a good human being, a great dad, a great friend. He’s not like a typical professional skateboarder. I’ve learned a lot from him just by being around him. He has a very good, positive energy to him. It’s cool to see that he’s just a person, and a really perfect one in a way. I’m sure he doesn’t feel that way, but I look at him and I’m like ‘That’s what I want to be like. I want to be like Kenny.” Just a humble, down to earth, steezy dude.
Before you met Natalie (Johns, Director), was there anyone who inspired you to keep going?
No there wasn’t because I was on the streets doing drugs, doing really bad things. I didn’t have anyone to look up to, I just had really messed up people around me. When Tammy came into my life, she changed my whole perspective on life and people. I finally had a feeling of wanting to do something with my life instead of just throwing it away. I started to care more. She was the person I looked up to most.
Have you talked to Tammy (Lee-Smith) about this whole experience?
We face-timed this morning, sucks that she couldn’t be here but she’s here in spirit. It’s cool though, she was happy that it happened and that everything turned out well.
What’s the next thing you’d like to accomplish?
I don’t have a solid plan, man. I didn’t even think I’d be here today, so I don’t like planning things out. I never have. I get why people plan things and set goals for themselves, but for me it’s never worked out. I want to move forward, definitely. I know I want to share my story and hopefully travel the world and become a professional skater. I do want to try and form another little skate part too… I’m trying to do things for myself now and better my future which I still don’t know what that’s going to be.
Who do you go out and skate with?
I skate with Kenny a lot. Out of all of the sponsors that I ride for and people I hang with, he’s like the only person I skate with a lot. There are a lot of fake people out there, and I don’t have time for that. I don’t want to pretend to be friends with these guys and go skate with them just to try to fit in. I don’t need to fit in. I feel like places, like in LA, people want to fit in so bad that you’re going to do whatever it takes to just be with the cool guys. You don’t want to be left out, I understand not wanting to be the odd man out, but you do have a choice.
What’s your favorite trick?
Nice! Who has the best switch tre?
What spots do you want to street skate?
Ohh! The loading docks spot in Chinatown. If I could skate anywhere, that would definitely be it.
Knowing that skating is a hard thing to do for a long time, are you pursuing other potential opportunities?
Oh no, skating is what brought me here and what I’m going to do. If something comes along that I like or if I want to branch out to other stuff other than skating, like a more creative thing, then yeah I’d be down for it. But right now I’m focusing on this skating thing. That’s what I came here to do. If that doesn’t work out then I’ll be like, ‘Oh maybe I’ll try something else,’ but [skating] is the only thing that matters to me.
After years of filming, you’re sitting here at the LA Film Festival, how do you feel?
Honored, actually. I feel very proud and blessed to be part of something that is going to better some people’s lives out there that are in very crappy, unsettled situations. Hopefully [the film] will give them a sense of encouragement and a little bit of hope. Any way that I can help or improve or empower people lives, I’m down to do. Even the slightest thing can go a long way.
How has today been so far?
Good! I think Thalente and I are a little bit exhausted. He looked at me earlier and was like, ‘Why are we so tired?’
Last night’s screening was incredibly successful.
It was intense! We had such an amazing turnout but trying to get everybody in to the theatre and navigate your way around, it was a lot of chaos but really good. The response was so amazing afterwards.
Were there a lot of professional skaters there?
Rodney Mullen, Nyjah Huston, Tom Asta, Tony Hawk, Kenny Anderson, Ray Barbee. There were also a few people who sponsor Thal there, and a few guys from the skate store.
Did it feel like a “skate video” premiere or a traditional film premiere?
Definitely like a film premiere, it’s not a traditional skate film it’s a documentary film. It’s a human story, a portrait of this young man and his rise out of circumstance. The heart of skateboarding, the passion that he’s built his life on comes out in the story. We had a lot of human beings that supported the film there, and then lots of people who bought tickets. It was a general admission audience. Also there were a lot of mother’s of the kids from the parks that Thalente skates in. One of the things that was so exciting was Rodney Mullen putting his hand up at the end of the film during the Q & A. Dude! Rodney Mullen said to Thalente something like, ‘You represent everything that is good about skateboarding.’ I wish I had recorded it and had the exact words.
How is Thalente handling all of this?
Sometimes it’s hard for Thalente to see what everyone else sees in him, he’s just doing his thing. One of the things I was nervous about during the film was how vulnerable it was, how much of his life I was exposing. Exposing things that other skaters might look down on, like him not street skating. That is something I know he could be criticized for, but his peers didn’t criticize him for that because they saw [where he came from]. He lived and stayed in the one place in the world where he felt safe. For seven years, he was at one skatepark. He lived in that skatepark. He didn’t go street skating because he’s afraid of cops. He used to get woken up by pepper spray, get beaten. He doesn’t want to f*ck with the law. He wants to stay safe.
He seems like such a sensitive soul. Was it difficult to get him to open up to you?
I don’t know what it was, but he and I bonded right away. For me, the thing I really value in life is when somebody follows through with what they say they’re going to do. I just knew instinctively that a lot of people didn’t follow through with what they said to Thalente or promised him. So many people had let him down. My #1 goal was to never let him down. He wrote a post this morning that he feels so blessed and loved. I was like, ‘Yes!’ That’s all you want someone to feel, loved.
Could you relate to Thalente’s story?
I grew up in South Africa, very middle class. The thing that bothered me, for as far back as I can remember, is the disparity. Why did some people have so little and others had so much? I didn’t understand that. In South Africa, the disparity between rich and poor is huge. It’s incredibly sad. When I was a child, I couldn’t understand it. I used to have nightmares about this stuff as a kid.
I’m sure getting into the LAFF was a big relief, all of your hard work didn’t go unnoticed.
So I got rejected first. I got a Tribeca rejection and then I got this rejection and I was mortified. I was like, ‘How can you reject this story?’ This, I think, is important for other filmmakers to know. I had a cut ready by the end of December, and I was so deep in it, I couldn’t see the woods for the trees. I had all the parts to the story there, all of the information was there and I thought it was good enough to submit. I hadn’t looked at it since December, so when I got the second rejection from LA Film Fest, I thought, ‘Wait, wait, wait. Something’s wrong with the film.’ I called one of the producers and asked if they could sit down and watch it with me. I had to go back to the drawing board. I had a 4 month break from submitting it to watching it again with fresh eyes, and I could see everything that was wrong and I was able to re-edit for another month and a half. I feel like now, this is exactly what I wanted to say with the film.