Upbeat competitive skateboarding documentary, Highway Gospel, punches with unlikely characters whose enticing sincerity is stirring and packed with spirit.

Highway Gospel follows two diverging aspects of the underground sport – the championship ambitions of middle aged slalom long-boarder, Claude Regnier, and the exploits of a group of Kimberley based downhill speed-boarding race organisers as they plough through a series of intense race meets.

Highway Gospel’s long-boarding community is energetically captured and benefits from being allowed to speak for itself – an external, overarching narrator is noticeably absent. It’s a decision from first time directors Jaret Belliveau and Craig Jackson that lends the film considerable authenticity. While the lack of any direct explanation of the sport can make this debut feature a tad bewildering for the uninitiated, Highway Gospel’s engrossing, deep-end approach oozes with universal emotion.

The extreme side of downhill long-boarding – secret race meets and illegal road races through dangerous mountain passes – are glimpsed early on in Highway Gospel, yet the film neatly swerves Jackass territory to reveal the serious side of the sport. Cheap thrills are hastily set aside in favour of a sharper exploration of this sporting community in a choice that reflects the earnest commitment of the sport’s enthusiasts.

“For the uninitiated, Highway Gospel oozes with universal emotion”

In pursuing two very different spheres of long-boarding sport, Belliveau and Jackson, cleverly contrast the established slalom competition scene with the fresher face of a long-boarding community that more closely resembles the subversive skate lifestyle most recognisable in pop-culture. Yet the film’s two distinct narratives are drawn together neatly by familiar themes from the financial difficulties that pervade the sport to the love of life and positivity that runs throughout skating culture.

Fifty year old, Claude Regnier’s dedication to slalom long-boarding in the face of multiple struggles is the film’s most emotionally compelling ingredient. Regnier willingly opens himself up to the cameras, ‘You know how many times I’ve been told I’m too old to skate? It’s crap,’ he says, before discussing his life plagued with health problems and open heart surgery. Well timed conversations with Regnier’s parents and partner draw the audience in to a deeper understanding of Regnier’s steadfast personality. His unwavering determination to provide a skate park for young people while training intensely for his own place on the world stage is moving. Yet, while the tone of Highway Gospel shifts to underline Regnier’s struggles, the film never strays far from its upbeat mood – enter Regnier’s training regime in tongue-in-cheek montage form.

“Highway Gospel is an energetic, vibrant and enlightening debut feature”

Highway Gospel’s focus on Kimberley based downhill race organisers is more sweeping, introducing a range of characters who propel the documentary forward through various race meets from Paskapoo Downhill Rodeo and Sullivan Challenge, to the largest and longest race, Attack Of Danger Bay, and the Maryhill Festival Of Speed World Championship.

Here Highway Gospel paints a vivid picture of a growing downhill long-boarding community fostered and nurtured by a handful of devoted individuals. From race organiser and thunderously passionate race announcer Bricin – himself responsible for the first legal road race – to breezy longboard innovator, Jody Willcocks, Highway Gospel is injected with fun and free spirit. But the booze and bad food that permeates the race scene has its hazards and Bricin embarks on a healthy eating regime that smashes stereotypes.

Highway Gospel’s raw style works to emphasise the self-organised, community nature of the long-boarding events it focusses on, while an authentic soundtrack brimming with folky and acoustic tracks is the finishing touch in this cleverly offbeat documentary. Highway Gospel reaps the benefits of four years spent amongst the long-boarding community offering a rich and stirring impression of this unseen culture and its personalities. Yet there also remain many characters in Highway Gospel deserving of more screen time, from spectators and competitors to youngsters learning the sport.

THE VERDICT: This vivid documentary feature demolishes preconceptions, offering a window on an underground sporting culture that’s drenched in skill, passion and determination. Highway Gospel provides a credible, relatable and entertaining insight into a hidden community whose positivity and love of life is inspirational. In their energetic and vibrant debut feature, Belliveau and Jackson remind us – in the words of competitor ‘No Crash’ Noah – that ‘it’s endless what you can do with real ingenuity’.

Highway Gospel premiered at Hot Docs – Canada’s International Documentary Festival – in 2011. Check out the official website for the film here and organise a Tugg screening of the film here.

✳ Many thanks to Nick from The Cinematic Katzenjammer for sharing this screener with me.