Local director reveals human struggles for Olympic acceptance
On July 7th, World Debut: From Outsiders to the Olympics premiered on the Olympics’ YouTube channel and has already attracted over half a million views.
The 90-minute feature documentary chronicles the over 20-year effort to get skateboarding, surfing, and climbing onto the Olympic stage. Salt Lake City-based directors Cole Sax and Galen Knowles along with producer Phil Hessler teamed up with executive producer Tony Hawk to present an emotional trek to make Olympic history.
The film, made in partnership with Boardwalk Pictures, WZRD Media, and Madica Productions, was produced for YouTube Originals and the Olympic Channel. Due to the global pandemic, it took over two years to make and connections with production teams in Argentina, Japan, Italy, and Switzerland were forged to capture the storylines within the three new-to-the-Olympics sports.
Originally, karate, which also debuted this year, was going to be included but had to be cut during final edits due to time constraints. “From a film standpoint, it’s already difficult to interweave storylines of people interacting within the same world,” Sax shares. “But we were trying to interact four storylines of people coming from different worlds.”
World Debut is a thorough, complex, and heartfelt narrative. It interlaces Olympic history and bureaucracy, the stories of individuals who passionately fought for the acceptance of these counterculture sports, and the voices of athletes who will represent their sport at their Olympic debut. Featured women who competed in the 2020 Olympics include Peruvian surfer Sofia Mulanovich, Japanese skateboarder Mami Tezuka, and Salt Lake City-based climber Kyra Condie. Professional climber Emily Harrington is another strong female presence in the film.
“That was something that I think just happened in our film where female athletes have such an important voice in it,” Sax says. “In addition to it being a natural thing, it’s also in response to showing how these sports and the people that exist within them are changing. It tends to be a very homogenous landscape when we think about action sports especially through the 70s, 80s, 90s, really up until now. I mean, there’s still a ton of work to be done.”
The film includes footage of Mulanovich talking about becoming a mother during Covid, Condie’s emotional discovery that she’d made made it to the Olympic games, and Tony Hawk’s admiration for Tezuka’s skateboarding skills; exclaiming, “That girl is gnarly!”
Sax agrees, “These are all powerhouse female athletes that are pushing the envelope and I think to be honest those people really represent the sport super well.”
Other important people in the film are the three stewards and advocates of each sport: Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association; Marco Solaris, president of the International Federation of climbing; and Gary Ream, founder of Woodward skate camp. A particularly touching scene shows Ream expressing his determination to get skateboarding onto the Olympic stage after the early passing of his son from bone cancer. His son, Brandon Ream, shared the same vision for skateboarding to be in the Olympics and hoped to expose kids around the world to the sport. Ream says his son expressed, “how other cultures figure it out is going to be so cool for you to see.”
Sax recalls his first taste for filmmaking while attending Park City High School and the Sundance Film Festival, “Being able to go and attend films as a high school student was a really cool experience to have and also listen to the filmmakers speak about their films and their projects. In addition, the action sports community really got me into filmmaking as well.”
Since high school, Sax has won a prestigious Clio Award for editing and has produced works for major companies including YouTube Originals, Snapchat, NBC, the Olympic Channel, Facebook, Nike, Allbirds, and The Obama Foundation. As a filmmaker, Sax shares he had to dig deep and figure out what type of filmmaker he wanted to be. He recalls a film he created during his formative high school years about his friend’s experience losing his father on 9/1. “That’s what I’m going after,” he says. “I am going after a feeling. I am going after wanting to make people cry, or laugh, and I can really do that by telling these human stories.”
This realization led to the creation of Far From Home, a six-part documentary series that follows six unlikely 2018 Winter Olympians and their stories of hope. The series, produced for the Olympic Channel, Bridgestone, Snapchat, and NBC, laid the groundwork for World Debut, as both films were made in partnership with Boardwalk Pictures. According to Sax, “Partnering with a production company like Boardwalk, managing a 36+ person international crew, dealing with a multimillion-dollar budget, and telling these stories was all a really beautiful experience to go through.”
The three episodes directed by Sax feature Julian Yee, the first Olympic figure skater from Malaysia who trained in shopping malls (the only rinks available); Shiva Keshavan, who despite winning multiple medals for India in Luge was not financially compensated and struggled to fund his necessary training overseas; and Carrie Russell and Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian, the first female bobsleigh team for Jamaica. These episodes reveal the enormous obstacles athletes face due to weather, economics, and cultural differences. And yet, determined athletes find a way. The inspiring series won two Silver Telly Awards and a Gold Telly Award.
Far From Home cultivated strong relationships among Sax’s team and Boardwalk Pictures and the Olympic Channel, so they proposed a similar series capturing aspiring Olympians trying to be the first-ever in their sport. “I love climbing and grew up being inspired by skateboarding and the people within skateboarding and surfing,” says Sax.
The idea attracted interest from YouTube, who suggested telling the story of how these fringe counterculture sports even made their way into the Olympic games; leading to the creation of World Debut.
Having gained international recognition, Sax finds himself in a unique position, “I like being a filmmaker from Salt Lake and having people see us make this type of work. In a lot of ways, it almost reminds me of the underdog stories from the Far from Home series. It can definitely be harder being in a smaller market like Salt Lake and trying to compete with major cities and studios. But every time we do it, and we’re successful, it just fuels the fire.”
Reading the YouYube comments for World Debut certainly affirms Sax’s ability to tap into human emotion through insightful human storytelling. Numerous responders share that the film brought them to tears. Others add their own experiences with the featured sports and many express their appreciation for the sports’ culture and community.
Just as the Olympics have finally embraced these fringe action sports, Sax hopes people who watch the film will realize that skateboarding, surfing, and climbing offer so much: “They encapsulate mental, physical, and spiritual components of life and can teach us really beautiful and important values.”