The Fight to Ride Free
‘Made in Venice’ digs deep into the history and future of local skateboarding culture
By Christina Campodonico
Every day for the past seven years, local skateboarding legend Jesse Martinez has spent his mornings at the Venice Skate Park. He isn’t there just to skate, though.
Starting at 5:30 a.m., Martinez voluntarily spends three and a half hours cleaning up the park so that kids have a safe and orderly place to skate along the Venice Boardwalk. That means scrubbing off graffiti, picking up broken glass, waking up homeless people who’ve spent the night there, and even power-washing the bowl and snake run.
“You got to love Venice to do what I do,” says Martinez, who credits skateboarding for keeping him out of gang life while growing up in 1970s Venice, then known as the “Slum by the Sea.”
“Everybody knows the story — jail, death or you’re just hanging on in the end. Only three ways out, none of them good,” he says.
Skateboarding was another, better way, and for Martinez it became a lifelong passion.
His labor of love is featured in the new documentary “Made in Venice,” which opens Aug. 25 at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center.
Directed and produced by local filmmaker Jonathan Penson, “Made in Venice” documents more than Martinez’s tireless efforts to keep the skate park clean. The film covers his rise from Dogtown streetboarder to internationally touring pro with Z-boy Jay Adams’s skate team, then continues with the skating community’s decades-long struggle to convince L.A. City Hall to build a skate park off the Venice Boardwalk.
The Venice Skate Park opened in October 2009, but even during its construction Martinez and eventual “Made in Venice” co-producer Masao Miyashiro pondered making a documentary about the park.
“I’ve been filming the park since day one of it being built,” says Martinez, 51. “I pulled out my phone and started filming.”
The saga of the skate park is complicated in itself — the city tearing down the sacred ground of the original Venice Pavilion in 2000, countless meetings with city councilmembers to draw up plans and raise funds, and even lobbying the California Coastal Commission for approval.
Martinez, a co-producer, moved into an advisory role on the documentary after meeting Penson, and they soon realized that the film needed to be about more.
“This story means nothing without a backstory,” says Martinez. “We needed to dive into the past.”
And that’s what they did.
Martinez’s journey is interwoven with the over four-decade history of skateboarding in Venice, as told through early skate videos, some never-before-seen Super-8 footage, rare black-and-white stills, and the voices of Venice skateboard icons and legends — among them Venice Original Skateboard Shop owner Cesario “Block” Montano and past Venice Surf and Skate Association president and Venice Skate Park advocate Ger-I Lewis.
(True believers take note: To celebrate the premiere of “Made in Venice,” Lewis is fronting the Venice All Stars for punk/Sk8-rock concert at Danny’s Venice, 23 Windward Ave., at 9:30 p.m. on Aug. 25.)
Zephyr Surfboard Productions founders Jeff Ho, Skip Engbloom and Z-Boy Jim Muir also appear in the film — as do former L.A. City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, current Councilman Mike Bonin and the late Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who was a champion of the Venice Skate Park.
For Martinez, the documentary is way to keep the legacy of Dogtown alive, especially as Venice transforms into a stomping ground for the Silicon Beach lifestyle.
“I knew in time that our generation, our way of life — which is a life — the endless summer, would be no more,” says Martinez. “That was one of the reasons I was so hell-bent at the end [to get a skate park]. If it wasn’t for that skate park, there would be really no scene as far as skateboarding.”
Martinez recalls the night before the skate park opened as a magical and rewarding moment.
“I remember looking out on it and saying to myself, ‘Wow, we did it.’ A group of guys who had gone to jail on that beach many times, countless fights, arguing with cops — look at what we accomplished, regardless of that. I remember thinking to myself, this is the last time this park will be this calm. That park is a world of its own. Without it, Venice wouldn’t be what it is today.”
A place where a kid with a skateboard and some gumption can still ride free, that is.
“Made in Venice” screens from Aug. 25 to Sept. 1 at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $9 to $12. The premiere screening at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 25 is already sold out. Visit Laemmle.com to purchase tickets and madeinvenicemovie.com to view a trailer of the film.