By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, Chicago Crusader
An exuberant skate doc with a social message “I Am Thalente” is currently playing event screenings throughout the United States and will release digitally on May 13. This is the inaugural release of the new distribution wing of acclaimed crowd funding and streaming company Seed & Spark.
“I Am Thalente” follows Thalente Biyela, a 17-year-old homeless skateboard prodigy in South Africa who catches the eye of the professional skate world when a DIY video of him skating goes viral. A group of top pro-skaters and figures in the skate world, including Kenny Anderson and legend Tony Hawk, offer Thalente support and an opportunity to pursue his dream of skating and competing in the United States, to rise above his circumstances and help him shape his own future.
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. The film features a vibrant ensemble of young skaters, professional legends and the memorable figure of teenage skater Thalente Biyela.
Homeless since he was 9 years old, Thalente Biyela ekes out whatever life he can in the documentary and is considered illiterate, with limited opportunities. His skateboard becomes his escape from turmoil at home, giving him a way to express himself, and access to a community of friends who become family. Skateboarding soon becomes the driving force in his life, providing sanctity as he lives on the streets of Durban, South Africa. After seeing the internet video of Thalente skating, Anderson offers to take him under his wing if he makes it to America.
I loved “I Am Thalente,” even though I wouldn’t consider Thalente “illiterate.” He was, of course, unschooled, filling his days at the skate park in South Africa, not knowing where his mother is and not really enjoying a good relationship with his father. But he was determined, and he was focused on getting to the United States, while he was also living with a friend who discovered him at the skateboard park and who saw something in him.
Before he leaves for America, he runs into an old friend who at one time enjoyed skateboarding, as well, but whose life took another turn. Thalente is concerned about leaving his friend, but he knows by now that their lives are on different paths. I enjoyed seeing him shoot the breeze with this young man—not being pompous or filled with an attitude. He is just enjoying his old friend for old times’ sake.
After a much practice at home, he makes his ways to Florida where he enters competitions and finally reaches Los Angeles, where he is in for one eye-opening experience after another. Committed to his sport, this young man has gone on to achieve acclaim in the world of skateboarding. It was nice to know that he survived the hardships of his childhood, since this documentary just lights you up with his ambition, easy manner and respect—not only for the skateboard—but for those around him.
As a side note, the song by Hugh Masekela that plays at the end is so, so apropos.
“I Am Thalente” is screening at film festivals across the country, and it may soon screen in Chicago. It will also be released digitally through Seed & Spark on May 13 across digital platforms including iTunes, Time Warner, Comcast, Brighthouse, Cox, Verizon, iTunes, Amazon, Googleplay. For more information, visit https://www.seed and spark.com/studio/i-am-thalente #updates.
Thalente dominates in his sport in the documentary that traces his roots—I Am Thalente—which is executive-produced by Hugh Masekela’s son, Selema Mabena “Sal” Masekela.