Athena Skates is a sun-drenched documentary that follows a group of young female roller skaters
Directed by Elliott Gonzo, and made with his team at Hijra Collective, the film is a luminous depiction of a young generation fighting for change in Athens.
- 15 May 2020
- Ayla Angelos
For Elliott Gonzo, a British film director based in London, storytelling is something that arrived habitually. It was while watching Delicatessen, a film by French director Jean Pierre Jeunet – a “dark and twisted, hyperreal comedy about a cannibalistic butcher and landlord in a post-apocalyptic France” – that he was initially inspired to professionally pursue the medium of filmmaking. “After watching Delicatessen,” he tells It’s Nice That, “I was obsessed with the idea of making my own imaginary worlds come to life; I taught myself to lucid dream in order to help me design perfect worlds within my dreams.”
After employing this method for ensuing his own complex narratives, Elliott went on to study production design at University of the Arts Bournemouth. Here, he was able to develop his understanding of film and started to appreciate the art of the filmmaking process. As such he directed his debut short, titled Sour Milk, that premiered in his final year of university. The film won various awards and was shown at a number of festivals; he describes this as the moment the “filmmaking bug” really took hold.
Post-university is when Elliott bought his first camera, some lenses and a career-defining ticket to India. “This is where I started to realise that the world we live in is full of amazing and interesting subjects and characters,” he explains of the moment he first traversed to the country – the result of which was a documentary on a Tibetan refugee, ‘The Lion Man’, who had escaped Tibet “holding the hand of the Dalai Lama” and had made a new home for himself in Dharamshala, India. “A couple of years later,” he continues, “me and a few friends including Mark Leaver, an amazing photographer, decided to travel to India together.” With multiple cameras in tow in preparation for stumbling across anything visually interesting, that’s when his first feature-length documentary, Tight, arose – an account of a group of Indian bodybuilders from Tamil Nadu, which is currently in the late stages of post-production.
It was during the end process of the film that a collaboration emerged between journalist and producer, Alex King, as well as his university friend and the “best editor” he knows, Dom Mayer. Months of incredible team work on Tight urged the group to form a documentary production company, Hijra Collective. “Creatively, we’re all very much on the same page,” continues Elliott. “We all love to travel and explore the lives that are really different to ours.” So much so that their first commission sees a newly premiered documentary, called Athena Skates, brought into fruition after hearing of Red Bull Storytellers – a talent development programme for emerging filmmakers, commissioned by Adam Gee at Red Bull Media House and themed on “here comes the sun”.
GalleryElliott Gonzo: Athena Skates; Photography by Mark Leaver
Following a group of young, female roller skaters in Greece, the film lifted off when Alex left London in 2017 to work in Athens. While writing an article about Latraac, an experimental skate bowl project in the city, Alex soon discovered an all-girl roller skate crew, called Chicks in Bowls Athens. “They were all big characters with a lot of style,” says Elliott. “The way they cruise around the sun-bleached city of Athens was just asking to be shot on film, and when the Red Bull programme appeared it was the perfect fit.”
Alex had forged long lasting friendships with some of the skaters during his time in Athens, meaning that the team had a small group of enthusiastic subjects to work with. This includes Constantina Xafi, Eva Balasi, Stefania Malama, Susana Bakatsia, Foreini Korre, Sofia Argyraki and Lydia Panago. “The first day we just chatted, did a bit of cruising around the city to skate different spots and talked the project through with them,” Elliott adds on the elementary process. “Even through we asked them to skate for long hours in weird locations and at weird times of the day, they were really supportive of the project and helped make it what it is.”
An abandoned airport on the coast, DIY skate spots around the city and spots found almost by accident are just a few of the locations visited in the making on Athena Skates. Most memorable, explains Elliott, is the final scene where the team had ventured early to Lycabettus Hill, a mountain in the city centre with a monastery settled on top – a hidden spot where they could film in the morning sunrise. Although Eva injured her ankle, the team were able to capture the “triumphant” moment as the morning sun broke over the skaters. Much of the film is captured in dusk and dawn light, meaning that it was a pressurised and well-timed film to make, with each day only allowing just a small window to shoot.
Luminous in its approach, Athena Skates aims to offer up a new narrative on the topic of young Greeks in the city. This comes at a strident time, particularly after years of negative media stories. “They’re fighting hard to make their mark in a very tough context,” concludes Elliott. “There aren’t as many of opportunities and support that young people in other European cities enjoy. If you want to do something in Athens, you have to do it yourself and really work hard for it. So we wanted to show this crew of skaters as just a small part of a bright young generation that’s really fighting to change things up.”
Director: Elliott Gonzo
Producer: Alex King
Director of Photography: Evangelos Polychronopoulos
Editor: Dom Mayer
Photography: Mark Leaver
Music and Sound Design: Rob Taliesin Owen
Additional Music: Oliver Gale
Colourist: Megan Lee
Translation: Zina Sarris
Production Company: Hijra Collective
GalleryElliott Gonzo: Athena Skates; Photography by Mark Leaver
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she became online editor in 2022 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.