Parkour is a sport in which you have to go from one point in the city to another as efficiently and quickly as possible, overcoming any obstacles in your way: walls, fences, trees, etc. This has made parkour THE urban sport, included in recent music videos, advertisements and feature films. Danish filmmaker Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s MY PLAYGROUND is a documentary on movement, freerunning and parkour, and its relationship with urban spaces. The documentary features scenes with parkour masters, Team Jiyo, and interviews with urban planners, local politicians, architects and philosophers.
According to UK freerunner Ryan Doyle “ideology says it’s childish to climb trees”. The die-hard freerunners and parkour players featured in Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s newest documentary, My Playground, takes that notion and runs with it (straight up the side of a building!), proving that the art of movement is anything but childish, but rather challenging, masterful and sometimes downright crazy. Parkour is the art-sport of moving through urban spaces, which often means leaping over walls, swinging from scaffolding, jumping from rooftops and somersaulting down asphalt.
Distinguishing it from freerunning, which places more emphasis on the creative freedom of movement and self-expression, parkour’s concern is with efficiency. My Playground features Danish teamsters, JiYo, who philosophize about the meaning of architecture, the perception of public space, and their drive to keep the adrenaline pumping. “Parkour is also about working with your mind and overcoming the boundaries in your head,” says one JiYo team member. “What’s fascinating is the way of transforming the city, because you can’t change it physically, you can only change the way you look at it and the way you use it,” says another.
Parkour can be thought of as a physical discipline that trains the body to overcome any obstacle in its path by adapting one’s movements to the environment. Lucky for traceurs (practitioners of parkour) in Copenhagen, there is one company that adapts the architectural environment to thew movements of parkour.
«To overcome any obstacle in one’s path by adapting one’s movements to the environment»
BIG Architects, lead by Bjarke Ingels, designs buildings and urban landscapes with the idea of trying to create access to what is usually ‘off-limits.’ At the start of the documentary, members of Team JiYo are filmed leaping from the slanted rooftops of suburban garden homes that flow down a 10-storey building designed by Ingels called the Mountain, located in the Orestad district just outside Copenhagen. YouTube is full of clips from the UK-based Storm Freerunning team and even adolescent Russian kids doing back flips off abandoned building sites. Like most videographers who capture parkour in action, Schröder’s film is played out in slick, slowmotioned shots that feel endorsed by athletic wear. Perhaps the very nature of parkour demands that we view it at a higher frame rate that can capture the physical aptitude necessary to execute such feats. The result is both beautiful and puzzling to watch.
One can’t help but wonder how freerunners and traceurs seem to defy physics like super-humans, bounding upward over a brick wall quicker than we can blink. In the hearts and minds of the practitioners, parkour seems to be defying culture as well – defying what culture had intended the buildings to be used for. And that’s where Ingels comes in: “Life in the city is always evolving and it is our job as architects to make sure that our opportunities for expression aren’t limited, but that our cities match the life we want.” Ingels even takes Team JiYo to Shanghai were they are let loose to test run BIG’s skeletal structure of the new EXPO pavilion.
In style, color and cut, My Playground is bouncy and modern, like the cities it uses as its playground. Schröder captures the parkour practices of China, Japan and the United States, focusing on the positive powers lurking within the angles and crevasses of each cityscape. The relationships between each traceur and his or her city are similar – not only do they feel they are changing their urbanscapes through utility, but the spaces and buildings they are moving amongst are changing the traceurs themselves. So it’s no wonder that parkour has been considered ‘a state of mind,’ rather than a set of actions, where mental and emotional barriers are overcome alongside the physical obstacles. In only 50 minutes, My Playground manages to reach a philosophical crux where musings about transferring life energies are triggered. According to Klaus Bondam, Copenhagen’s Mayor of Technical and Environmental Administration, when the organic makes contact with inorganic material, energy and identity are passed on to the material, thereby creating an exchange and becoming serpentine.
But what seems to be missing here is the historical context of Parkour. When and why was it developed? How did it reach its current status? What does the training process entail? Are traceurs and freerunners on a suicide mission? Perhaps that would be a different documentary entirely. Parkour started in France and first appeared before a mainstream audience in the 2004 feature film District 13, written and produced by Luc Besson.
The film stars Parkour founder David Belle who uses the discipline to create highspeed action sequences in this scifi crime film. But in recent years, parkour’s popularity is gaining as a brand of sophisticated stunt work. Unlike the urban sport of skateboarding, an older tradition that also mixes architecture with extremely challenging movement, Parkour has managed to reach outside the realm of amateur documentation, whereas skateboarding remains trapped in the zone of the self-made ‘skate video,’ captured by the handheld camcorders of the skaters themselves. Indeed, there is a gap for a professionally intelligent skateboarding documentary, yet Parkour has already broken ground as the main attraction in many music videos, advertisements, feature films and documentaries of late. One young traceur in My Playground comments that parkour is “like skating without a skateboard.” Perhaps the sole responsibility on the body, in the absence of equipment, is what remains most alluring and challenging, to both practitioners and observers of parkour. It is the discipline of the real life superhero – doing what is unimaginable – existing in a timeless space without rules. A lot like the nature of filmmaking. Perhaps that’s why the two make each other look so good.