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New surf doc revives a genre

4/27/2011
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"Splinters" Trailer

Premiering at Tribeca Film Festival, this documentary explores the development of surfing in Papua New Guinea.

On Monday, the movie "Splinters" premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival and took the resurgent genre of surf documentary to new heights.

It's fair to say that the godfather of surf filmmaking, Bud Browne, was a documentarian in the purest sense. His first movies were observational, unencumbered by contemporary demands for narrative or structure. He discovered something he found fascinating to watch (nascent surfing and surf culture), trained a camera on it and hit record.

This elegant, effective style -- an evolution of a filmmaking form that was only a few decades old at the time -- was tinkered with but not altered for decades. Considering the explosive changes that took place in surfing itself over that time, beginning with the advent of big wave surfing and followed by the short board revolution, the introduction of the thruster, the aerial and the big wave renaissance of the last 20 years, the format didn't need to change. With what was happening on the screen being so different year to year, filmmakers might have chosen to get visually creative (a method that Taylor Steele proved wasn't integral to a great surf film with 1992's "Momentum"), but a new form of storytelling was hardly necessary.

In fact, it's possible that the single biggest change in surf filmmaking came in 1984, when Quiksilver presented the seminal movie, "The Performers." As the surf industry grew to appreciate surf movies as an ideal form of advertising, their increased presence (in branding and athlete selection) applied a commercially-motivated format to what had been a relatively freewheeling style. To be fair, corporate sponsorship did not mean the end of creative surf films. Witness much of Jack McCoy's filmography, brought to you by Billabong, as examples of filmmaking and commercialism working in near-perfect harmony. What this change did mean, however, was that surf filmmaking as a form of documentary was pushed to the point of near-extinction.

This changed in 2009, with the release of "Bustin Down The Door" and "Sea Of Darkness" -- the former an in-depth examination of how Australians revolutionized the sport in Hawaii in the '70s and the latter an exposé on the drug-running roots of today's Mentawai surf tourism.

"Splinters" builds considerably on the stylistic momentum those movies created. The film, about the first-ever National Surfing Championship in Papua New Guinea and how it changed the lives of several surfers from the host village of Vanimo, succeeds for reasons similar to why "Bustin' Down The Door" and "Sea Of Darkness" succeed: the surfing serves as a vehicle to tell a much larger story.

The characters in "Splinters" represent archetypes of the global surf community. There's Angelus, the fierce, proud local facing the end of his reign as the baddest man in the lineup; Ezekiel, the beatific young upstart who represents the new generation, Steven and David, heads of rival surf clubs who each see in the National Surfing Championship very different versions of opportunity; and Andy, the president of the national surfing association who is unshakeable in his belief that surfing can help bring positive social and economic change to Vanimo, on the northeast tip of country.

All of these men face an elemental struggle with change brought on by adulthood, modernity and poverty. Played out against a backdrop that sits literally beyond the border of civilization as we know it, their stories could easily have been lost in the volume of similar content produced regularly by the likes of the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. But their stories are played out against the backdrop of the local break -- a beauty of a reeling left that handles sizable surf with ease and appears to break consistently year-round. Seeing the archetypes on land, we're seeing men of a poor, native culture completely foreign to us. Seeing them mid-bottom turn or tucking into the barrel, we see ourselves and our friends in the lineup.

No one should head to "Splinters" to watch surfing, although there are enough surf sequences to make any surfer consider booking a few nights at Steven's fledgling surf camp (the seeming lack of beds, electricity or food notwithstanding). Rather, they should head to this movie to celebrate the return of the surf documentary. Those who dedicate their lives to surfing already know that it's a prism through which all humanity's experiences -- the great, the awful, and everything in between -- can be filtered and understood. But for those who don't surf, the surf documentary does it for them.