About The Film

A recent study estimated that more than 70 gangs with some 68,000 members operate in the city of Chicago. Their toll on the the city is severe, carving parts of the South and West side into a practical war zone. Chicago’s murder rate doubles that of New York. In the first 3 months of 2012, more than 400 people have been shot, many of them teens.

For youths trying to escape, the routes are clogged with violence. But a growing number have found in skateboarding a vehicle, literal and figurative, to escape the perils of gang life. Once the province of West Coast surfers, followed by their admirers in suburbs around the country, skating has now gained a foothold in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods.

For Leo Castillo, age 21, skateboarding has been a saving grace. Through his teens, he witnessed the disintegration of his family: an older brother shot and killed before him by Chicago Police officers; a younger brother, beset with illness, slowly slipping away to the same gangs he reviles; an abusive mother and a father he’s never known. Skateboarding offered an outlet.

A high school dropout, Leo must confront his own challenges, too. He hops from job to job and home to home, the only consistency in his life is the grind to stay afloat. Through the tumult, skateboarding has been one of his only sources of solace.

But one summer day, as he stood outside of his mother’s home with a few neighborhood kids, someone began shooting. As Leo rushed the children to cover, a bullet tore through his calf.

Leo is confronted with the fact he may never skate again, thanks to nerve damage from the bullet. Through months of rehab, the irony haunts him: The very thing that had shielded him from violence was being ripped away from him by a neighborhood he couldn’t quite escape.

Faced with the realities of his injury, Leo began to forge a path to adulthood. From spearheading the construction of a skatepark in his Little Village neighborhood to teaching his own after-school skateboarding class at a local high school, Leo sought out ways of turning a youthful passion into a productive future. But with each step forward, Leo’s troubles remained one step behind.

A collaboration between filmmaker Ryan Ferguson and New York Times reporter Azam Ahmed, this feature length documentary will fuse the components of classic observational storytelling with the vibrant aesthetic of a skate video.

“Skate or Die”, an overused catchphrase from the suburban, white origins of skate culture, strikes at a very real threat to kids like Leo. For them, skating is an escape – even if just temporarily – from the unceasing violence.