Hill Street

‘If you’re coming to Hill Street for a complete picture of Ireland’s skating subculture, you’ll be disappointed’ says MacDara Conroy

Maybe it’s best to start with Hill Street by defining what it isn’t. Though described in all the publicity as a documentary on the history of Irish skateboarding, it’s much more the collected reminiscences of one single skating scene, centred on the titular street in Dublin’s north inner city. There’s little or no reference to, or historical context for, skating culture anywhere else in Ireland, where there must have been active satellite scenes, however small and isolated.

That’s the first problem. The second is something that’s freely admitted on the film’s production blog: that it was expanded (read: padded out) to feature length from what was most likely a quirky short. So we get large swathes of superfluous banter from the famous (Tony Hawk, who once graced the Top Hat with his presence on a Bones Brigade tour) and not-so-famous (Alex Moul, whose spaced-out blatherings – y’know what I mean? – swiftly wear out their welcome) humouring the filmmakers with vague recollections of events they can’t possibly remember. 

But that’s enough about what Hill Street isn’t. What it is, at its heart, is a well-intentioned nostalgia trip to the formative days of Ireland’s skateboarding subculture as it coalesced around Clive Rowen’s now legendary skate shop. Tucked away in a rough part of town, Clive’s was an oasis for the city’s skating misfits, and various heads who frequented the premises share their fond memories of dodging feral gangs of local youths just to hang out with the few others (all male, it should be pointed out) who shared their weirdo interest.

The film also traces skateboarders’ struggle for acceptance in a city that viewed their passion as at best a passing fad (the council’s reasons for refusing to build skate parks till not that long ago) and at worst an intolerable nuisance (though the straights brought that on themselves: with no skate parks, where else were the kids gonna go besides Dublin’s streets and office plazas?).

However, if you’re coming to Hill Street for a complete picture of Ireland’s skating subculture, you’ll be disappointed. It’s one thing to skip even a cursory glance beyond the Pale; it’s another to completely ignore the significant cultural crossover between skating and punk. Blah blah rights issues, whatever: that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about music as a bonding force within the culture. It’s enough to deserve a film in its own right, and it really feels like a spectacular omission.

Similarly, we never really get to know the personalities beyond the few talking heads. Reams of clips with random kids at the Baggot Street bank doing grinds and ollies and getting lippy with the local security don’t add up to much when we can’t put names to faces. Right at the climax we’re introduced to one or two young prospects taking their passion to a professional level, but that feels tacked on and rushed, like a contractual obligation.

As a feature, Hill Street seems contrived with a general audience in mind – hence the explanatory bumpers about skateboarding history, and the inclusion of mainstream brand name Tony Hawk – yet by the end of it, Irish skating culture is still an enigma. Those in the know will get a kick out of the interviews and the smatterings of archive footage, but the rest of us are far better served by the superlative Dogtown and Z-Boys, the 2001 documentary on the revolutionary Californian skating crew, which strikes the right balance between hand-holding for newbies and giving the fans what they want.

Hill Street opens on May 23rd with a special Q&A screening at the Light House Cinema hosted by Una Mulally with director JJ Rolfe and producer Dave Leahy.

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