It’s called parkour, or free running; participants run, jump, swing and tumble over just about any object or piece of architecture in their path. Originating in France during the 1980s, it’s grown in popularity since then.
A film called My Playground is about a Danish parkour team from Copenhagen who demonstrate how a city landscape can be transformed beyond its physical boundaries. Team JiYo is made up of several young men and one woman who have no fear of rooftops, dangerous ledges, and all kinds of everyday obstacles on sidewalks at eye level like staircases, walls, and lamp posts.
But what makes this movie more than just an amazing visual treat of physicality is a discussion of how architecture uses its own space to make it happen. Through interviews with architects, city planners, politicians and a philosopher, My Playground explores the dynamics of a city with a life and energy one does not ordinarily consider.
The film follows Team JiYo around the world, including stops in the United States, Britain, Japan and China. My Playground director Kaspar Schröder is along for far more than the ride. He’s also the writer, cinematographer and editor, producing a kind of kaleidoscopic journey. Schröder, based in Copenhagen, told VOA how this athletic movement of twists and turns, born in Europe, took off in Asia, and how he put together this incredible piece of work.
SCHRODER: I only had one camera and I just had them repeat it again and again and again. And the first scene was pretty hard on them because, I think, there were like six angles so they did it six times down the whole building on all those levels, terraces. So at the end of like the sixth take they were like, “That’s it! We can’t do anymore.” So they always set the limit themselves and so I pushed them to do as much as I could and then they said stop.
KOUGUELL: Were you hanging upside down or you know some of those things?
SCHRODER: Some of those shots, they have camera[s] mounted on them and I made a special rig that they could have around their stomach and then the camera was out, the tripod hanging out from them and then they could shoot from their own body. So the camera would follow their movement. Other than that, I was climbing up different stairs and different roofs and doing some parkour myself to shoot.
KOUGUELL: How long has free running or parkour been going on in Denmark?
SCHRODER: Since 2005, and that’s around where it started. I did a short film about another group and then I got to know about this group. They were kind of like the pioneers in Denmark.
KOUGUELL: What took you and Team JiYo to Tokyo and Shenzhen, China?
SCHRODER: I got an invitation to participate in the Shenzhen Biennale. It suddenly came about that we should shoot something; come a bit earlier, shoot something in the local area with the local free runners. And then include it in the film. So we were there like two weeks prior to the exhibition’s start.
KOUGUELL: How popular is free running in Japan and China?
SCHRODER: It’s very popular, but it’s really like getting more and more focus and attention and there is a problem in Japan that it is difficult to do it because of all the security and all this “privately owned” old buildings. Everything is private so they can only do it in parks and on limited space.
And that’s a problem for those teams. But in China, it’s a bit more loose and people do it anyway more without asking but in Japan it’s more formal and everyone needs to ask permission. But it’s slowly getting more and more popular. And more teams are emerging and it’s a sport definitely.
KOUGUELL: Is it getting more popular in other parts of Asia?
SCHRODER: Yes! I know in Thailand it’s quite popular as well. I think it’s very much influenced by YouTube because there’s no competition, there’s no real club. Everyone is using YouTube to learn new tricks, or to like publish their own ideas or get famous.
KOUGUELL: A Chinese female runner that you interviewed in your film said free running made her more outgoing and changed her personality in a positive way. Is that felt by others who do this elsewhere?
SCHRODER: Yeah definitely. It’s a community and people are really coming together around this sport. It’s really much a change of lifestyle. It’s a change of perception, of how you look at buildings and things around you. So it definitely has a very positive impact on people that participate in it and discover it. And that girl especially, she came from a circus background. She was at a circus school in northern China where everything was very restricted and rules and practice, practice, practice. And then she turned to this complete opposite where it’s all about freedom of movement and do whatever you like, when you like, and how you like it.
KOUGUELL: Is there any one main trait or attitude free runners have in common among the Western and Asian participants?
SCHRODER: I think that it’s all about freedom of movement. They don’t see it as a sport, like it’s a competition. The only competitor you have is yourself. I think it’s all about being creative with your movement and the things around you.
My Playground is definitive proof that while you may have to be young to participate, you can watch on the sidelines with this movie to appreciate a completely different way of looking at the panorama of city life. With Schröder’s keen eye, colors and angles are more brilliant. Startling shapes of buildings old and new are no longer just stationary structures. As one member of Team JiYo explains, he developed a bad habit of exploring possibilities in everything. That’s a universal piece of wisdom we all can share.