Blog: Catch 22, it’s beautiful because…

26th February, 2011.

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My research adventures began in London, September 2004. I didn’t know who, what or how to film parkour but wanted to understand the ‘everyday’, the essence and spirit of the practise. I aimed to do this by making documentaries. I had no budget, was a crew of 1 (the director, producer, camera operator and editor) with a camera, decent microphone and a dislike for carrying tripods.

My research has been based on participant observation, a standard practice for anthropologists but the choice of few filmmakers; it’s a timely process (takes years), is fraught with difficulties (can be a pain in the arse), is humbling (not much room for filmmaking egos), but is an ethically accountable and rewarding endeavour (the feel good factor) that hopefully communicates the understanding of what one group of people or culture does to another.

With anthropological intentions and a concern for representation, I became a collaborative parkour filmmaker, a creative translator who shared experiences (when filming and not) with those who feature in the films, taking feedback onboard after showing footage and edits, even when they were pretty bad. I listened, observed, learnt, and took part (yes I do a little parkour and this has helped me to understand and represent it.)

It’s been about sharing, feedback, friendship, trust and respect. Lofty ideals, some might say, but all possible over time. There were no great expectations for my work, no production companies, audiences or executives to please, no one except those in the films, the harshest critics of all. I wanted to understand parkour in a way that those who had created it did, to get to the source, the ‘experts’. It took time but I got there.

Overall, the first 18 months of my research was spent sussing out who was who in the parkour world, separating the opportunists from the informed, making both friends and enemies along the way. I originally worked with Urban Freeflow but chose to cut ties with them after 2 years and have since worked with Parkour Generations from its inception in 2007.

When I started back in 2004/5, both the mainstream media and parkour community were representing parkour in the same way. It was about performance; big, visually dramatic action. There was little meaning communicated beyond displays of physical potential, albeit, beautiful and incredible displays, images of perfected accomplished movements.

On the web, David Belle’s 2002 video SpeedAirMan continued to inspire and was taken as the guide and reference to what was or wasn’t parkour, (the classic ‘are flips parkour?’ debate…) rather than appreciating the video for what it was: a showreel David had put together for the first Spiderman film (the clue’s in the name if you say it with a French accent).

In the UK mainstream media, the BBC’s 2003 Rush Hour channel ident had inspired and led to Channel 4’s hybrid of performance and documentary Jump London that told viewers parkour was an art and a philosophy. These representations, coming from the informed establishment perspective of prime time terrestrial TV, meant parkour in the UK was at least in with a chance. These early endorsements gave British based practitioners a head start on what the French pioneers had been trying unsuccessfully to achieve for years: an appreciation and acceptance of their practice.

The young French trailblazers had all performed in shows and films, wanting to inspire and share their art, demonstrating new realms of possibility between the mind, body, and environment, but with the exception of a small sports based feature for Stade 2 (channel 2) on French TV, nobody was interested in parkour beyond the wow entertainment factor. It was catch 22, had they not participated in jaw dropping performances, we probably wouldn’t have known about parkour. After all, watching someone repeat 100 ground level precisions just doesn’t capture the imagination in the same way a massive catleap can.

So began the paradox, the tenuous relationship between parkour performance and parkour value. The debates surrounding what is parkour, and therefore what is it’s value, how and when it should be used, continues to this date.

My understanding of parkour was forever changed in December 2005 when I had the opportunity to meet Stephane Vigroux. I knew that parkour involved a creative vision and imaginative reading of the landscape but Stephane presented a case for parkour as not only an art and philosophy, but a disciplined, particular way and approach to training and conditioning the body. Stephane wanted to communicate the ‘how’, the way of parkour.

Few within the media or in positions of authority were interested in how it was that experienced practitioners such as Stephane could do what they did for years and years without sustaining serious or even fatal injuries. They weren’t broken men. Were all of these guys unique physical anomalies with magic DNA and joints of steel? No. They were just young men from the banlieues, an identity loaded with negative prejudices and the French authorities in particular weren’t interested.

After 2 days spent listening to and filming with Stephane, the generous donation of some of Stephane and his brother Johann’s early parkour footage, I had all the elements for the documentary Le Singe est de Retour (The Monkey’s Back). In Stephane I had found an authority on parkour, an artist and humble practitioner.

Parkour is a method and movement. For Stephane, the founders and those who trained in the same way, they had an approach: ‘once is never’. There were always repetitions to refine, and repetitions of the perfected. If you could do it, do it well, and then do it again, perfectly each time. In stark contrast, the camera only needs that one golden take.

If parkour is approached as a method it can produce incredible results physically and psychologically, whilst keeping the participant safe in the process. There’s no big secret to parkour, just practice, practice, practice.

However, parkour isn’t for everyone, especially the parkour Stephane practiced. This replica of the original was always precise, and at times hard and dangerous. His training had been full of pain and suffering. He had trained to overcome and endure mental and physical hardships – not everyone’s idea of a good time. However, it was also extremely creative, expressive, rewarding and purposeful for those for did it.

Stephane shares the view of the founders that you can take the methods and approach, the values and fundamental concepts, and apply them in a safe and responsible way, allowing others to experience the positive psychological and physical potential of parkour. For them parkour’s value isn’t the ability to create inspiring entertaining images, (something any experienced guys can produce at the drop of a hat,) nor is it necessary to always suffer or risk as much as founders and those around them had chosen to, what mattered was effort, the discipline to be precise, intention, the reflexes and responses to obstacles both real and imagined. To acquire that magical light touch that keeps the body safe and well; balance, control, flight, accuracy, strength, creativity and adaptation ever present. Parkour was never the wild abandonment of jumping over a wall, landing badly and hoping for the best.

London 2006. In the borough of Westminster a man with no experience of ever doing parkour, seeing it only on TV, also saw its potential value and was in a position to do something about it. A maverick, forward thinking Community Sports Officer, Eugene Minogue was constantly looking to find new ways to engage young people in physical activity on the various estates and youth clubs in the area. Parkour was seen as cool and you didn’t need any equipment. Eugene had competed in gymnastics in his youth and could see the obvious similarities as well as many differences with parkour. He took a risk – a beaurocratic, health and safety, form filling kind of risk. He needed people who could teach this, responsible adults who knew something about parkour.

Forrest (Francois Mahop) was the man for the job. He had learnt his first steps in parkour from Stephane Vigroux. Accompanied by Dan Edwardes, they began working for Eugene, teaching parkour in various after school clubs and on estates. The results were better than anyone could have expected; not only did the young people enjoy it, but parkour seemed to be an antidote for anti-social behaviour when presented in a particular way. Crime figures dropped substantially and the young people were being active whilst re-evaluating their surroundings, gaining confidence and embracing risk and fear positively. Right time, right place, I filmed and followed the project for one year, resulting in the documentary ‘Jump Westminster’. This representation of parkour countered many of the negative stereotypes that were taking hold, ones of parkour as a practice of mindless stunts and tricks for self- promotion, ninja jackass gone wrong. When communicating any aspect of culture, representation is key.

I first met and interviewed David Belle in Nov 2009 (with my trusted friend and translator Thomas Couetdic) I had a sense of déjà vu. Stephane had after all been an unquestioning and loyal apprentice of David for five years. A day after meeting David, Thomas and I interviewed Yann Hnautra – double déjà vu. February 2010, I interviewed Sébastien Foucan – triple déjà vu, whilst editing footage from Rendezvous 4 with Williams Belle, quadruple déjà vu. You get the idea.

Regardless of any divisions that people (as well as the founders themselves) may choose to focus on the disciplines of parkour, art du deplacement and freerunning, the essence and spirit of the training they do, the approach, the principles they value, and a concern for people’s motivations, are the same and shared by them all. The initial closed, inaccessible and somewhat elitist approach of the founders, coupled with lazy journalism, rapid commercial exploitation, irresponsible and naive self-promotion and representations of parkour by practitioners, have all contributed to and fuelled the misunderstandings of parkour’s potential.

It’s been 3 years since the release of Jump Westminster and over four years since finishing Le Singe est de Retour. Whilst parkour as performance entertainment may be winning the short term battle for dominant representation, parkour’s story isn’t over yet. Parkour’s value is gaining credibility in other areas. Internationally, community based projects are being given a chance to shine, and participation is now more diverse as the young, old, male and female all have a go. Sports scientists are waking up too. There’s even been a U turn by the French authorities who are now, 20 years later, embracing and celebrating the young men from the Paris suburbs.

Parkour has provided many opportunities for many people, myself included, and continues to mean different things to different people. For some parkour is more athletic than artistic and vice versa. For others it’s a spiritual path, and there are those who choose all 3. As a filmmaker, observer and commentator, I’ve seen that parkour consists of two inter-related and inter-dependant elements, method and movement. Depending on a person’s motivations, awareness and how they choose to prioritise these elements; the understanding, representations and subsequent choice for the use of parkour will vary.

Academics to date have discussed parkour in terms of psychogeography, reclaiming the streets in ‘stunts and tricks,’ focussing on the creative re-interpretation of the urban landscapes with no mention of any training, other motivations or the natural environment. Marketing companies use parkour’s playful mobility to sell all manner of products; again focussing on the alternative use of urban space for consumers to identify with, suggesting people think differently and buy their products not the competitors. Games developers take fantasy leaps of faith and use parkour to illustrate the impossible, whilst film directors and producers seek new spectacular images to provide wonderment and awe. Entertainment industry entrepreneurs and aggressive capitalists have created competition formats, justifying their existence by appropriating the term ‘freerunning’ in a bid to create a financial model allowing them to sell TV rights and feed off a new generation of consumers willing to buy into ‘the lifestyle’ and merchandise they have to offer.

Whether you view any of the above as parasites, predators or simply as necessary and harmless promotion inspiring future generations, there are two sides to the art of parkour, even if you see and hear a lot more about one than the other.

As David Belle said in his book, “parkour is a long distance sport” and is now practiced all over the world but it can be a dangerous activity so know why you are doing it and make sure they are good reasons. Stephane Vigroux, Yann Hnautra, Williams Belle, Chau Belle Dinh, déjà vu. You get the idea.

Cheers, Julie