SHEFF DOC FEST ’21: For Guen Murroni, Director of ‘Stormskater’, The Personal Is Always Political

Still from Stormskater. A young black woman is in the centre of the image, standing on one leg. The other is stretched out towards to camera, and only the wheels of the skate are showing, blurred. Behind her stretches a quiet road, surrounded by grass and trees.
Still from ‘Stormskater’

Guen Murroni’s short film Stormskater, which premiered at Sheffield DocFest, opens with the voice of its star skater Ishariah Johnson:

“The reason I’m called Stormskater is because my real name was not getting me real jobs…the first name looks Islamic, the last name looks black, I’m a female – I’m not getting employed.”

These opening lines set the precedent for a film that seamlessly blends discerning social commentary with the joy and freedom of roller-skating. The film follows its effusive protagonist as she spins and skims through an empty skate park and glides down avenues, onlookers parting in front of her like scattered snooker balls. 

The project came about as a bit of an accident Murroni admits: “I’ll be honest, it wasn’t planned. I met Ishariah on another shoot and we just got on really well and there was a lot more to say. She stood out to me, because we got straight into the politics and policing of space and accessibility and representation. She stood out because she was very loud about what’s up basically.”

Ishariah is a natural orator, and her narration is both passionate and pragmatic, providing an ideological hook from which the film swings between issues of underfunding, institutional racism, and identity. Murroni herself is now part of a North London skating team (freshly on the wheels, she is quick to add).

“You can turn up and be completely shit and nobody cares. They help you out straight away. But the first time I went skating, within three hours the police had turned up. We know there’s racial profiling here in the UK and everyone points the finger at the US quite easily but we’re definitely not looking at the situation here, which is very similar.”

While this is not the first time Murroni’s work has dealt with societal issues – her 2017 short Fee, starring transgender activist Munroe Bergdorf, explored issues of acceptance in the trans community, while 2017’s Playground studied the realities of living with a life-altering sleep disorder – Ishariah’s words seem even more prescient given the turbulent nature of the past year. 

Murroni explains that “There’s a personal side to everything that I do. I was in a group called ‘Sisters Uncut’ for a while. They are a direct-action group who were responsible for the Sarah Everard vigil and the ‘Kill the Bill’ campaign. As part of that collective, we’ve reclaimed social housing as well. It all feeds into what I do because it’s all concerned with space – everyone has a right to safety and housing and private space. Those are general life principals.”

Indeed, while Ishariah is the undisputed star of the short, the space she inhabits as a skater is handled with a similar sense of gravitas, with Murroni’s direction drawing attention to the unregulated areas of the city that become important to marginalised groups. Shot at a popular local skating haunt, Murroni chose the space“because of how the light comes through. You’ve got the two overhead motorways and then this lovely ray of light that comes neatly down on the floor where Ishariah is.”

The result is striking, the camera pivoting around Ishariah as she dances, and the industrial concrete around her becoming almost a holy space under Murroni’s directorial eye. It helps, Murroni admits, that the cameraman (Chris DuMont) was a skater himself.

 “I kept pushing for stuff and he did a great job. He cares a lot and he was a great collaborator in that sense. The camera equipment we used is all made for skating because we wanted the camerawork to reflect how it feels to actually skate – constantly rolling.”

Murroni started out as a writer, working in theatre, and cites it as her first love. While her move to start making documentaries was born out of that same narrative impulse, she is the first to admit that there were practical reasons too,

“The reason I began to pick up cameras and do it myself was simply because I wanted to finish something! Picking up a camera and doing it yourself is the finishing touch to what you can do on paper. And even with documentaries you have to ultimately put it down on paper – whether it’s because you’ve got a recording to shrink down or whatever, you’re still re-writing the story to a certain extent. So the basis of everything is the story and therefore the writing.

“When I started off, there weren’t as many options for women, so I just said ‘fuck this man, I’m just going to do it – I’m not waiting for you to tell me what’s what!’ I wanted my kind of scripts to go somewhere.”

It’s an experience that may be familiar to other female filmmakers. In an industry where female directors still play second fiddle to their male counterparts due to chronic underfunding and deep-seated institutional biases, the grass-roots appeal of the documentary format, and its dependency on community support is one that many female filmmakers harness.

“With documentaries, you kind of just have to go and do it. And there’s never enough money. Maybe there are more women making documentaries because there are smaller budgets and they [the industry] don’t trust us yet. I’m not bitter – I’m just being realistic about it.

“I’d like to see what the percentage of women moving from shorts to long form films is and then I guess you’d have your answer.”

It is evident that the strong female energy in Stormskater, is as much to do with its protagonist as it is to do with Murroni’s own sense of artistic voice and her desire to represent the authentic experiences of marginalised communities,

“It’s been quite a refreshing thing over the last year and a half, because ever since I’ve been more into saying ‘fuck this I’ll do what I want’, I’ve had more opportunities come up. I’ve done stuff that’s really down to my core, like Stormskater. Anything that’s a bit political has always opened up doors for me.”

It’s a strong message to take away and is echoed in the brazen joy of Murroni’s visuals and Ishariah’s candid words. Though she dances on her own, Ishariah represents a wide community of black roller-skaters, establishing their right to move freely around the city and celebrate their enviable talents. Murroni’s film is a six-minute manifesto for freedom through bodily expression, and an absolute joy to behold.

Stormskater premiered at Sheffield DocFest on Saturday June 5

by Lydia Rostant

Lydia Rostant is a 22 year old writer who’s lived in Manchester for the past four years. Her cinematic interests include (but are not limited to): women in film, women being bad in film, food in films, weird snacks that symbolise something else (a hot is never just a hot dog … or however the saying goes), great soundtracks in films, characters singing in their cars, tracking shots that start with the feet and work upwards, films about drop-out music geeks that pretend to be teachers in order to live out their fantasy at a local rock gig (yes, School of Rock is in her top 5).You can read her work on her blog: https://thepristineinnerexperience.wordpress.com 
Twitter: @LydiaRostant

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