Visual poetry: surf filmmaking


SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: As winter in South Africa draws to
an end, so many of us find ourselves longing for those things that have had to take
a hiatus in the shivery months between May and August. For some of us that might
be melting mojito’s, sand-crusted sandals or a signature Joburg afternoon
thunderstorm. For others it’s a GoPro, surfboard and an oceanic blue curl to slice
through. At the recent Durban International Film Festival, which ran from 16 to 26
July, the Wavescape Surf Film Festival invited audiences to share in this culture and
featured a diverse line-up of films including documentaries, shorts and features
within the genre. Steve Pike, the founder of the festival and the Wavescape website, gives Screen
the lowdown on surf filmmaking.

What in your opinion makes a great surf film?

Unless there is something unique about the subject that demands a documentary
narrative, such as a compelling story or other attributes, you need beautiful waves
being ridden by good surfers shot with high-end gear that is cleverly edited, and set
to a deeply evocative soundtrack. Most surf films in the general sense of the genre
depict adventures to find amazing waves in remote or interesting locations.
Nowadays, of course, incredible tech advances make the footage increasingly
insane, from drones to super HD to extraordinary angles by POV action cams. The
most important factor, however, lies in the film’s ability to evoke a deep wanderlust
where we lose ourselves in a symbolic quest for the perfect wave – the surfers’
Holy Grail of course is getting tubed in a curling crystal cavern of superlative shape
and form.

Do you have any favourites?

I love Timmy Turner’s film Second Thoughts. It has elements of the
above, but there is a narrative that combines humour and hardship about a bunch of
guys going feral on a remote Indonesian island. I love Come Hell or High
, an unpretentious film about body surfing that beautifully combines
great waves, beautiful music and soulful storytelling. As a feature doccie,
Riding Giants was a fascinating account of the birth of big wave
surfing, while Step into Liquid was another great example of a
historically pieced together documentary narrative. In terms of traditional surf
films, perhaps the most evocative are films like September Sessions,
Thicker than Water
or Castles in the Sky. The best films
control the pace – keeping it languid and relaxed – with the use of beautiful music.
As a director Taylor Steele is a master of this, as well as the Malloy brothers.

Do you know of any which have been shot at least partly in South Africa?

Lots of films feature South Africa because we are an important part of the surfing
world. Perhaps the most seminal of all surf films, the granddaddy of the genre, was
Endless Summer. This featured South Africa, as well as Bruces
. Overseas surf films will often feature a segment on South Africa. A
recent example is Attractive Distractions. Since many films are about
travel, it figures that our shores are featured. We have some the best waves in the
world; cheap ways of travel; and exciting things like lions and sharks to keep
surfers interested. We have had very good surfers coming out of South Africa, such
as Martin Potter, Shaun Tomson, Jordy Smith and Bianca Buitendag, and that
always sparks projects involving films. Tomson has been involved in films like
The Pure Line, Bustin’ Down the Door, Free Ride, In God’s Hands and
Many Classic Moments. Jordy has been in plenty films featuring South
Africa, such as Now Now and Bending Colours. Then
there are the more serious feature films. Nicolaas Hofmeyr directed a film about
big wave surfers Cass Collier and Ian Armstrong called Taking Back the
(2003), while the fiction film Otelo Burning (2011), directed by Sara
Blecher, and documentary film Kushaya Igagasi (2013), had Zulu surfers at their
heart. We have loads of young filmmakers shooting documentary feature and short
format films in South Africa, but also Mozambique, Namibia and Angola. A lot of
projects are short action films shot around southern Africa. A few other locally
produced films include Surfers and Sharks (how surfers deal with the
shark threat) and Ocean Driven (the story of big wave surfer Chris
Bertish) among others.

How big is the surf film industry? Are there a lot of people making these
kind of films?

The surf film industry is not huge by any means around the world, and particularly
in South Africa. However, it’s in a much healthier state than it was say 10 to15
years ago. This can be attributed to the ubiquitous rise of the POV action cam and
the drone. It’s undergoing a bit of a boom because of the amazing array of new
angles you can get, which is perfect for action or extreme sports such as surfing.

Who are some of the top filmmakers in this genre?

Overseas you have guys like Taylor Steele, Chris Malloy, Jack McCoy, John Milius
and the three generations of Browns, from Bruce to Dana to Wes. In South Africa,
Jason Hearn has done well, and you have the experience of guys from Fixer Films
(Neil Webster, Richard Moerdyk and Adrian Charles). There are quite a few young
guys producing great stuff, such as Steven Michelsen, Dave van Rensburg and Dan

What are the major differences in creating this kind of film versus creating
a traditional narrative film?

There are traditional narrative films that belong in the surf film category, but the
traditional surf film you’re talking about is a sort of visual poetry if you like, often
divided into stanzas, verses or chapters utilising three basic components: Music,
Wave, Surfer. The surfer rides the wave set to music, and simplistically speaking,
the type of surfing and surfer, wave, music and the editing combine to evoke a
thematic: high-octane blast on one end of the spectrum to super slow mo and
languid gentle pace on the opposite end. At the risk of generalising, the style and
type of surfing elicits a certain pace and rhythm as supported by the genre of
music. Hot surfer on short board often means high performance, fast surfing with
big moves and heavy metal or alternative rock. Longboarding might suggest a more
gentle mellow style with acoustic ballads or slow love songs. Retro boards might
suggest something fluid but also fast, and in between, maybe like country music,
reggae, retro music or dubstep. The type of music (ballad, rock, symphonic,
country etc) and type of wave (soft breaking, hard breaking, dangerous, benign etc)
are all part of the mix. It also depends on who the surfer is and the way they surf –
their style. Then of course there is the location of the wave, and the size of the
waves being ridden. Waves with names like Dungeons, Shipsterns, Mavericks or
Teahupoo might introduce more adrenaline. There are endless permutations in the
surf filmmaker’s repertoire.

Are there any new trends in this genre of filmmaking?
The new technology has definitely influenced a trend of more POV angles from
inside the wave and on or above the water. The Phantom HD has given new
meaning to slow mo! Another trend is the appearance international documentaries
that tell unique stories. The traditional “surf porn’ film has been boosted by
technology and has been kept alive by clever manipulations of the tried and tested
surf / wave / music formula, but it has also been rejuvenated by proper storytelling.
Some examples: Rio Breaks depicts the hardships suffered by slum
surfer kids from the favelas in Rio. Sliding Liberia tells the story of a
kid who started body boarding during the civil war after finding a body board in a
ransacked shipping container in Monrovia. Zulu Surfriders covers the
story of twins Cyril and Mishak Mqade, who have made a life for themselves
through surfing in KwaZulu Natal. Rail to Rail, a short film, features
Juan “Zancudo’ Hernandez who stands on his body board to ride the waves of El
Salvador. There are many stories that have yet to be told.

Are surf filmmakers using any new techniques or equipment to better tell
their stories?

The drone, The GoPro, Phantom HD. Enough said!

Are there any digital platforms or websites a person could visit to see more
of this kind of content?

Most surfing websites offer video content, such as my website, and other SA sites like The Bomb Surf and ZigZag. Overseas sites include Surfer, Magic Seaweed, The Inertia, GrindTV, Stab Mag and Surfing Life while the Red Bull Content Pool has loads
of cool stuff.


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