How skateboards healed heartache and brought hope to Afghanistan

Story highlights

  • Breakup inspires director to "sponsor" his heroes
  • Creates art exhibition using skateboards
  • Honors film stars, his mom and his ex
  • Part of sales go to charity in Afghanistan

(CNN)What do Cara Delevingne, Sigourney Weaver and Spike Jonze have in common?

The obvious answer is Hollywood movies, but the surprising one is ... skateboards.
And the factor that links them all together is up-and-coming British film and TV director Ben Gregor, himself a board fanatic.
    Suddenly separated from his partner of nine years, Gregor -- known for the kids' comedy "All Stars" and short film "Blake Junction's 7" -- found himself in a new flat in West London, surrounded by new furniture.
    The smell of its freshly-cut wood gave him an unusual urge. Why not honor the people he values the most through the medium of his lifelong skating passion?
    British director Ben Gregor.

    Humble & Epic

    This was the beginning of "Humble & Epic," an art installation in London's Herrick Gallery of 68 maple skateboards laser-etched with the names of Gregor's heroes, friends and family -- and one surprising choice, his ex-girlfriend.
    "When you're a pro skateboarder like Tony Hawk, you get your name on a skateboard," Gregor told CNN. "That makes you a pro. It's a big deal when a skateboarder gets their first board," he said.
    "I was smelling the wood and thinking, 'I want to sponsor back the people who've sponsored me in my life.' It's a gratitude exercise."
    On one shimmering board there's supermodel and actress Delevingne, who worked with Gregor on a film that fell through.
    Then there's Weaver and Martin Clunes, actors he directed in "Doc Martin," a hit British TV drama that concluded last month after seven series.
    Jonze, who Gregor directed in the TV series "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret," also has a board. "He's a genius," Gregor says of the American actor, director and award-winning screenwriter, who got into movies by directing the first cult skate videos.


    It's not just entertainment stars who've been acknowledged -- there's also boards for Gregor's late mother, his two children, his dog, and even for his ex.
    "I think she did a slight eye roll, but it feels good to have her there, for some closure," reflects Gregor.
    "You can come out of happiness in different ways -- sometimes you need to brood and be on your own. But sometimes you need to say, "F*** it,' and make something great out of it. It's slightly defiant."
    The boards are about more than just Gregor's heartache and love of skating.
    A proportion of their sale -- £250 ($380) for the existing decks, £300 ($450) for a bespoke one -- will go to Skateistan, a charity providing skateboarding training, education opportunities and pure fun for kids in Afghanistan, South Africa and Cambodia.
    The NGO has been in Kabul since 2007, where it has created an indoor skate park in which 550 children enjoy the sport -- and the community and confidence it brings -- in a war-torn environment not necessarily the safest for children. It focuses on activities for girls.
    Skateistan uses skateboarding to engage underprivileged children with education.

    A loophole

    "Under Sharia law (the Islamic legal system), girls aren't allowed to ride bikes or do much at all," explains Gregor.
    "But through a loophole, they're allowed to skateboard because it's seen as a toy. Skateboarding is so accessible. As long as you have a board, you can do it anywhere."
    Though Taliban fighters were removed from Kabul in 2001, the fundamentalist group recently took control of Kunduz, a city in northern Afghanistan.
    It's just 170 km away from Skatiestan's second location, Mazar-i-Sharif, where two years ago the charity opened an outdoor skate park and play space -- a rarity in the conflict-ridden country.
    "There's a huge lack of educational and work opportunities for women in Afghanistan," says Skatiestan's director Oliver Perkovitch, who has also been honored with a board.
    "Most Afghan girls don't go to school, very few have jobs and often don't get the opportunity to participate in sports. When I saw it was possible for young girls to skateboard in the streets, it came to light how skateboarding could be used to connect more Afghan children with education."
    The skateboard charity helps bring fun into children's lives.

    More than just fun

    As well as slides, grinds and kickflips, Skateistan is teaching street kids who have dropped out of school. It has so far succeeded in getting 65 children back into the education system, with 40 more studying towards that goal.
    "When it comes down to it, kids just want to be kids. Skateboarding provides that," Perkovitch says. "It's this simple outlet that allows them to forget their problems for a moment and just be.
    "Once kids are hooked on skateboarding, so much more is possible, especially in the classroom. Skateboarding itself teaches important life skills, like creativity and problem solving and about never giving up."
    Back in the art gallery in London where the boards are on display, the same message resonates. One board is dedicated to Evel Knievel, the daredevil stuntman who Gregor quotes: "If you fall during your life, it doesn't matter. You're never a failure as long as you try to get up."
    Gregor says even skateboards' makeup is a metaphor for resilience. "They are always made of maple," he explains. "It's the hardest wood; it flexes. You land with a certain impact and it bounces back."
    The etched boards have helped Gregor heal his personal pain. Through Skateistan, they're also bringing learning and fun to children who desperately need it.
    Humble & Epic is on display at London's Herrick Gallery until December 19, with plans to exhibit in Tokyo and Seoul in 2016.