Parkour is the epitome of panache. Like bungee-jumping, BASE jumping, and all those other extreme sports where men make suicidal leaps to prove their worth, parkour (also known as free-running) emboldens, it makes the heart soar. The name itself is derived from parcours du combatant, the obstacle course French army cadets are required to master as part of basic training. In parkour, the city is an obstacle course, which must be overcome by the most efficient means. Practitioners of parkour are known as traceurs. They’re young and daring, and they scale walls like cats. The short film, Choose Not To Fall (winner of “Best Filminute” at the Filminute 2010 International Film Festival) is about Daniel Ilabaca, traceur par excellence; a Nike-wearing Cyrano de Bergerac.
The first shot sees Daniel passing over us. He’s aloft. We’re below. It’s hard to think of a more eloquent expression of the transcendent feeling parkour evokes in observers; the splendour of expert movement, how it lifts you even to see it. He jumps – so deftly – it’s as if it was impossible for him to fall. Daniel is fearless, super-humanly agile. The short sets him against the brutal grey of London. He’s dressed in black, an insurgent. The city is his oppressor. But the tone of the film isn’t harsh; it’s soothing. The director, Matthew Marsh, wants to show how parkour beautifies a concrete jungle. When Daniel moves, you’re like the kid watching the plastic bag in American Beauty: you see “the life behind things”.
Daniel is a good speaker too. He talks of how: “in the world in general, imagination and creativity has been lost, and [it’s] been slowly fed back…through computer games…and kids are addicted to games because it’s an easy way to achieve.” Parkour is, from his perspective, a life-threatening response to the great failing of modern life: our wish to abolish the stakes… to lose, and not to suffer for it. In computer games, if you die, you press “Play”. In parkour, you can’t afford to slip. Once you volunteer for risk, you also volunteer to accept the penalties. This is why parkour is for the brave; not because the feats are courageous, but because the practitioners abide with injury and pain. It’s not a sport for whiners. If you fall, you abandon blame. That’s the nobility of these guys: the heroic refusal to demand assurances. Parkour obliges you to be captain of your life.
Matthew Marsh’s film has the steely grace of an Anton Corbijn photo. His black and white images are suffused with strength. You can’t look at Daniel Ilabaca in motion and not see an athlete, and a rock star, mated. He’s city-born, city-weathered, and city-cool as anyone on the cover of Dazed and Confused, or ID. Marsh, like Corbijn, understands the power of black and white to make a subject enduring. Like a photograph of musicians, the film is an attempt to emboss something that is ephemeral by nature. Parkour is over, mostly, by the time you catch sight of a traceur. So the film slows that motion, seeking to capture the image Ilabaca creates in your mind – the wonder – rather than the harum-scarum of free-running.
No-one in London seems to notice Daniel taking risks. Jaded city-dwellers occasionally afford him a second glance, but they rarely stop to look. In a telling moment, Daniel executes a perfect summersault as people walk past him, oblivious to his prowess. He could be on fire… He could be flinging bolts of lightning… and Londoners would ignore him. In this context, parkour becomes even more an act of rebellion. Not only do practitioners defy death, they also defy the life-throttling metropolis: they refuse to blend in. This is not to say parkour is about garnering attention (though, let’s face it, Daniel did want to be filmed); it’s only acknowledging how lifeless we all seem…how we look down… in contrast to traceurs.
Those who’ve seen District 13 (a French action movie from 2004) will be familiar with David Belle, the man who invented parkour. He was the guy who made you want to renew your gym membership: the one who outran thirty assailants; leapt through narrow windows; vaulted staircases…and, all the while, looked so serene, it was as if the chase was his morning work-out. You never saw Belle sweat, in District 13. He had panache. He stowed fear, and doubt, and thoughts of personal safety… until, to see him move, you’d think it was effortless. With this in mind, Choose Not To Fall is made with a traceur’s attitude: the leap doesn’t matter; it was (and is) always possible. At heart, in parkour, the aim is to be braver.