Parkour: the freedom of the city

It’s sneak-out Wednesdays (on a Thursday.) Sat in an empty cinema to watch District 13. High art. I knew Parkour was going to be big.

I saw the first of the free-runners living in Paris at the turn of the century, and the freedom of considering walls or rocks or buildings not as blockages, but as challenges, looked exhilarating. It was long before I discovered the joys of being in the most athletic 1% of the population myself; my first triathlon was years away. And the skateboard scene – more about fashion than fitness – bored me after I turned six. But Parkour, free-running, grokking ways to twist your body and carry your momentum over walls far higher and to floors much lower than seemed feasible, was something really interesting. And now, the original traceur David Belle’s made a film about it.

The plot? Stylishly preposterous: French authorities have dealt with Paris’s ghettoes by building a wall around them to confine the drug-dealing and violence within them. One athletically-talented man frustrates the dealers by ‘napping their stash; he ends up being recruited by a cop who’s being deluded into thinking he knows what’s going on. It’s fast-paced and fun in the ‘Taxi’ mould. The freerunning sequences are incredible – one move where David Belle heads for a door and flips upwards feet-first through the narrow windowlight over it – needs watching at least four times to check it’s real. (In my mind, there wasn’t enough freerunning, because freerunning is what this film’s all about.) But you’re spasming and jerking in the cinema like a martial arts fan, thinking about what it’d be like to have such skills.

But in the end, the comment Parkour makes about Paris is more valid than just jumping over rooftops. Yes, freerunning’s a better way to see the world: as an always-interesting environment you can travel through in three dimensions if you’re good enough. But what it says about France in particular, and the way that egalitarian nation treats its immigrant communities locked away in the suburbs, is more valid still. Because of course, the solid wall around the Banlieues already exists. In people’s minds.

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