I Am Thalente – Thalente Biyela Interview

Maybe you’ve seen or heard about the award winning documentary film “I Am Thalente“. Basically, it is the story of South African skater, Thalente Biyela – once homeless run-away kid from Durban, who found his way back into life through his passion for skateboarding. It almost sounds too sappy, too good to be true – but filmmaker Natalie Johns manages to tell outspoken Thalente’s genuine story authentic and real, so that his true fairy tale comes off as amazing and touching as it really is. From picking up skating at the local park, being noticed by Tony Hawk, to pulling off makeing a move to LA to chase his dreams of becoming a professional skater. We wanted to learn more. So on a recent visit back to his native South Africa we tracked him down for a chat. Street life, skate dreams, being saved by movie stars… you could imagine Thalente’s got stories for days… here are a few!

Down with the best: Thalente presented by Mr. Kenny Anderson. Pic Lawrence McCullum

Intro: Kliewer | Words: Kliewer, Broadley | Pics: As stated below

Hey Thalente! To get this straight: You were born and raised in Durban South Africa, and then moved to LA after the movie was shot, is that correct?
No, I moved to the States a bit before the end of shooting for the movie, so some of it was filmed over there. Now I’m back for a month or two. I’m getting to see all my friends, which is really cool. And I get to spend time with Tamy who I haven’t seen in about two years, which makes me very happy. Skating my local park with all my homies is another really nice bit. Since moving to California I’d only been back here once just for a few days.

And how did it all start for you? How did you get in touch with skateboarding?
I used to surf before I started skating. My surfer friends had skateboards and they’d let me have a go on days when the waves weren’t that good. However, both, surfing and skating, were really sporadic then I’d only go every now and then. But so when the Durban park by the beach front opened in 2004 I could already tick tack a bit. I got my first proper board that I owned from my friend Braxton… so that’s sort of where I started skating officially.

»Yes, I was living on the streets, and yes, I was around dangerous people and a lot of crazy shit. But I was very fortunate to always have people that cared for me«

Thalente frontside flipping in L.A., land of opportunity. Pic: Justin Kosman

But skateboards and surf gear do cost money – how did you end up in the situation you were faced with: Literally, living on the streets. And how were you able to still surf and skate?
Well, I base being able to get surf and skate stuff on the feeling that I was a very blessed young man; people would always help me out. Yes, I was living on the streets, and yes, I was around dangerous people and a lot of crazy shit, but I was very fortunate to always have people that cared for me. So many people would give me their hand-me-downs… even though a lot of it would get jacked by the older street kids!

Style from early on: Young Thalente smith grinding. Pic: Barry Tuck.

Living on streets started as an on and off thing for a few years: I would first run away from home about the same time I started surfing. I’d run away for a few days, sleep by the beach front, and then my step-dad would come find me and beat me up. I can’t even count how many times. Still he thought it would teach me a lesson and keep me from running away, but of course it would only make me wanna get away from there more. My mom was the only person that kept me wanting to come back home. But then she passed when I was about 13. And from the day after the funeral I decided I’d be leaving the family, and so from then I was on the streets permanently. I fell into a hole, felt really alone and empty. I started smoking heroin about half a year later. The thing is, when you’re on the streets you can really do what you want, you have the freedom to do what you want, when you want, with who you want; no rules, no mom or dad. Some of that freedom however comes at a prize, obviously.

»I’d run away for a few days, sleep by the beach front, and then my step-dad would come find me and beat me up«

So was this around the skatepark scene or somewhere else?
This was around the skatepark. It was and still is a very big thing, cheap and easy to come by. I’d even make fun of the kid that got me into it first; like: Fuck that, I’ll never smoke that stuff! But fast forward a week or two I was like: Hey, can I try some of that?

Thalente smoking a bowl with (a) Madonna. Pic: Justin Kosman

So how did you manage to kick it? I’m sure there are thousands of kids with a similar vita – but for most these predicaments lead to a life in misery, or worse. How did you manage to change for the better and get to where you’re at now?
A big part were all these wonderful people who believed in me, who kept telling me: Dude, you have potential! You can make something of your life! – What these people saw in me is something I still try to figure out to this day! Because: I don’t think I was an incredible skateboarder. I feel like skateboarding was only half the reason for them to say all this. I think they were also seeing the person that I am. And look at me, I did it; I made something out of my life already. I’ve left all these dark places and the misery I was in behind. And I like to think a lot of the opportunities I had and the good things that happened to me came through my mom, or here passing, guiding me in the right direction. I don’t really believe in God, I believe in my mom. She was the one putting me in the right direction. And the other half, the other mother figure in my life, is Tammy (Smith) who I knew from surfing and who would always come look after me at the skatepark whenever she’d be back from her trips as pro surfer. She was the only person who’d never judge me; no matter what I’d done or what I’d become – even when all other people had given up. She endured dealing with me in my darkest days, she was my beacon of hope. She saved my life and has become my older sister/mother figure – the person closest to me.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned on the street? Is there any special skill you’ve acquired and are still stoked on today?
Observing man! I’m a real good judge in character now. I can sit back and figure out my why into or out of a situation, and I can tell if someone’s trying to fuck me over. Plus, I don’t think I’ll fall victim to fast-talkers or pickpocketing – I know all about that! I’m also not a big fan of violence because I’ve been around so much of it.

How did you get by living on the streets? What would your days be like? Was there some sort of social care in South Africa?
No, you’re on the hustle man. You go stand outside the shop with a cup in your hand all day and ask for money. I was always too scared to do anything that could get me arrested. You’d only find me doing stuff that the real thugs would not do.

So I guess you didn’t really have any skate idols or people you looked up to then, did you?
No, I was dealing with real life. The only positive inspiration I had back then really was Tammy. If I looked up to anyone it would be her.

»I was dealing with real life«

Young Thalente, captured by Barry Tuck.

So how did the whole Tony Hawk scene that’s pictured in the movie come about?
You know what, that’s a bit blurry even to me. I’ve never asked for any of the stuff that’s been happening in my life… but yeah, there was this guy Dallas who was organising these cool skate camps for low-income kids from rural areas. The Laureus organisation was sponsoring his project and sent Tony Hawk as their ambassador to open a new pool Dallas had built. I also got invited to skate there and jumped in the mini ramp session. After the demo he came up to me and told me he liked my skating. Then he asked if he could send me product – and that’s how our relationship started: I told him I was really stoked but that I lived on the streets. “I don’t exactly have an address!” I ended up giving Tony my friend Dorian’s address and he would send me Birdhouse product every now and again over the following year or two. A few years after Tony came over again for another Laureus thing, this time with Kevin Staab. We talked a bit, he asked what was going on, I told him I was still living on the streets, but nothing happened. A little later though – about the time Tammy was playing a bigger and bigger role in my life and she had mad clear that I needed to kick my habit in order to be spending more time with her – Tammy went surfing with Natalie (Johns, film maker)’s younger brother and told him my story. Natalie heard about it and wanted to know more about me. So one day we’d go the park, film a few tricks and do an interview. She posted that on her Youtube, sort of as her support or motivational film to get people to fund me chasing my dream and going to America. While it didn’t work out as fund-raiser, the video blew up on the internet. People took it very well and got really and asked how they could help. However, Natalie felt like she needed to take measures into her own hands, she paid out of her own pocket and used her contacts to get me a working visa to get me over to the US and try for me to make it in skating. All the while she was now: Come on, we’re doing this film about your life!

»…shit!, I inspire people?!«

That must have been a trip! How did it feel having a film made about you?
It was just surreal dude! Then again I’ve been weirdly used having a camera in front of my face from people filming at the (skate)park – though of course not to that extent.

But didn’t it feel a bit like you’re marketing your life in some sense?
I don’t know… To be honest I didn’t even really know how documentaries were made. Next thing I knew it was actually going down and one’s been made about me!

Then the film was presented at the Laureus Awards in Shanghai. How did that feel?
Yeah, Laureus flew me out to Shanghai and put me up. It was rad! But bottomline is, I’m really thankful for them giving me this opportunity, and also for my story to be out to the world. Because I know it can inspire people. – I’ve been asked a lot: So, are you going to make money off of this? But the truth is: This film has opened so many doors for me and will continue to do so; so many opportunities that money couldn’t buy me. Of course I wouldn’t say no to a bit of money, but I’m way happier to hear a kid message me on Facebook saying my story is inspiring him to be a better person. That brings me more joy than a bunch of cash could ever bring me. – It’s a crazy feeling, like shit!, I inspire people?!

I’m sure you must be getting a lot of those messages… But you were also welcomed on stage by Benedict Cumberbatch and saluted by a ton of big name celebs and sportsmen. Did you get to meet any of them? Any stories from behind the scenes?
I broke a big expensive vase… well, Benedict Cumberbatch got me up on stage, I did my little talk, which was very nerve racking, we got picked up and brought back to this fancy hotel, went to the after-party… but that closed at ten or eleven. So everyone went back to the hotel and talked the hotel people into letting us have our own after-party on the second floor — with all the ambassadors, Olympic winners, a couple of actors and actresses, it was really cool. But so there was this big vase with all these flowers in – and I swear to God, I barely touched it! But it went boom! and smashed on the floor, glass everywhere. I was freaking out, thinking “Who’s going to pay for this?! I can’t even pay for my room!!” But all of sudden Bill Murray comes out of the woodworks, puts his arm around me and saves me from the situation. It was one of those moments when everyone is talking and the next second everything goes quiet.

»All of sudden Bill Murray comes out of the woodworks and saves me«

Tailsliding in Hollywood. No Bill Murray around this time. Pic: Jon Coulthard

An amazing story, ha… Back to the film: How do you compare the real Thalente Biyela to the “I Am Thalente”-Thalente in the movie?
It’s pretty accurate if you ask me. That’s who I am. Maybe some of the stuff is not how I live everyday – I’m not this positive and outlooking everyday, I do have my struggles. But I still think the movie is coming pretty close. There was no reenactment, no staging scenes or any of that. There was talk about it at one point, but it pissed me off. I think documentaries should be about the moment: either you get it or you don’t. I didn’t want to take away from my actual story.

»The film is pretty accurate. That’s who I am«

How did you feel coming back and skating “your” local park in Durban after all that happened now that you’ve spent a bit of time back home?
Surreal man! I had almost forgot where I was from – but nothing changes here, ha. I took me two days and then I thought I hadn’t left. Back to the Beach Park! It felt good, cool to see a few young rippers; a warm welcome! It’ll be a bit sad to leave.

Before you have a trip with Tony Hawk coming up. Tell us more about that please.
Yeah, we’re going to this opening of Skateistan park in Johannesburg. Tony invited me to join which is really cool. We’re also going to be doing something with deaf kids and kids with hearing problems. I’m glad to be a part of it.

And there is a trip to Paris coming up I heard? Make sure you stay longer a bit, skate scene there is sick and the city is rad!
Yeah, there is  movie festival that’s flying me out, pretty rad! And it’s my first visit to Europe. I’m really hyped.

And then it’s back to every day life in LA? How is that going to be?
Well, you know, if I I’m not teaching kids how to skate at the local parks to earn a bit of extra money, skating and filming with my friend Lawrence. I also hang out alone a lot. I like it though.   Lawrence and I are sitting on a little bit of footage, so when I get back I might start editing a part with him and try and put it out on my own. I don’t know… I don’t want to push myself in into skating – I feel if I’m supposed to that dude they’ll come to me!

So to end this: Where do you see yourself in five, in ten years from now?
Oh, I couldn’t answer that. I’m going with the flow. Obviously, I want to make it in skating, that’s my dream and goal. But in the course of some more years I want to get more into public speaking. I want to travel the world and speak – even if I don’t make it professionally I want to be some sort of foreback. Speak at events and conferences at some point. Before my plan is to skate really hard and keep going!

Thalente, best of luck and thank you very much!


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