By John Battiston.
One visiting East London suburb Hornchurch for the first or hundredth time wouldn’t possibly think to liken it to southern California, the epicenter of, among a bevy of other phenomena, skate culture. But upon entering the ramshackle gates of The Rom, a forty-year-old, 8,000-square-metre skatepark built within a ’70s-esque, drained-pool-style framework, one might just buy such a comparison, if only fleetingly. As one interviewee in Rom Boys: 40 Years of Rad — Matt Harris’s debut documentary feature covering the park’s history, inspiration and influence over the years — tells the camera, The Rom is basically “a little corner of California in Hornchurch.”
While Harris makes it clear that Americanism was integral in the construction of both The Rom itself and U.K. skate culture at large (modern patrons are seen wearing Dodgers ballcaps, NYC t-shirts and the like), his film first explicates the impact The Rom itself has had on the surrounding skate and BMX community. It establishes the myth behind The Rom and the mythically freewheeling, punk-infused epoch whence it came, before narrowing its scope to dynamically illustrate the passion, kinship and creative chutzpah that brought it into the world and sustained it for decades.
While Rom Boys does actively deconstruct the grandiose lore that surrounds spots like The Rom, these efforts never undermine the park’s importance in the lives of Hornchurch locals, its function as a much-needed creative outlet for the neglected. Judging by its first few minutes, one might dismiss the film as an advertisement for the park or a hamfisted plea to place it into governmental protection as an historic landmark — The Rom is one of the film’s sponsors, after all. By the end of its less-than-80-minute run, however, Rom Boys transforms into a broad assertion for a need to offer local, youth-centric recreation spaces.
Further, Harris has crafted his documentary to act as an interrogation of what we consider historic, and which characteristics might qualify or disqualify a person, structure, movement or other landmark to receive such a label. As another interviewee puts it, “It’s not a cathedral. It’s not a monastery. It’s not a great house. It’s about fun. It’s about recreation.” In the eyes of the highbrow viewer, The Rom’s function as a monument to the signature sport of a cultural faction so often associated with punkish, sometimes anarchistic attitudes could easily preclude it from obtaining historic status tantamount to religious or governmental landmarks. But with its touching, forthright investigation of the park’s personal benefits for many (“It’s kept me on the straight and narrow,” one regular admits), Rom Boys convincingly argues that an entity’s historicity ought to be measured in its bare-bones human impact.
On a macro scale, the material in this documentary is so captivatingly sequenced and photographed that one can easily overlook its less refined minutiae, formal blunders that indicate Harris’s newness to the feature-documentary format. Specifically, the graphics frequently interwoven into archive and interview footage are often feckless, if not altogether daft: The choice to lay pull-quotes over audio of a subject offering a different statement is, to say the least, baffling and disorienting, while many other captions peppered throughout the film are penned in an almost self-parodic sort of pseudo-poetry, seemingly antithetical to the unpretentious nature of the film’s subject. On that same wavelength, more thought could have been given to the overall effects design, which, instead of the roughhewn appearance more befitting the subject matter, tends to be uncannily glossy, as if thrown together with iMovie.
Nonetheless, it isn’t the formal assembly that will lead Rom Boys to wow viewers. Rather, this document of an expressive, community-binding artefact will enwrap even those completely unstudied in the world of skate with its dazzling photography, compelling framework and, most of all, its passion for an increasingly under-appreciated craft that has invigorated and anchored the lives of many.
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