All film is anthropology. Whether you view or make a movie, you’re either visiting a culture or reflecting your own–often both. Think of the new Pixar hit, Brave, with its Scottish archer lassie seeking a life instead of Prince Charming, and we defy you to not connect the dots between Mel Gibson, The Hunger Games and The Princess Bride. (Warning: Do not attempt this at home with your own daughter.)
No film genre is more determinedly anthropological than the surf flick. Born of amateur surfers with 8mm cameras, the wanderer-in-search-of-waves meme got an early kickstart from Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer. Its global success changed both surfing and film, spawning a gypsy culture obsessed with documenting its every barrel. Throughout the last 40 years most of the products have been shallow and narcissistic, easy for the general public to ignore. But in the past decade some pretty good movies have been made, from Step Into Liquid to, yes, the unfairly maligned Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze bromance, Point Break.
Now this year’s Honolulu Surf Film Festival is upon us like a big South swell, running from July 7–31 at the Doris Duke Theatre ([honoluluacademy.org]). Surfers and fans will no doubt pack the screenings, each of which also includes a short film or two. It’s a great way to party and express solidarity with Hawaii’s cultural foundations.
Still, for non-surfers, or those who’ve sat through a few too many hours listening to nasal dudes droning on about epic Wednesdays, some of the entries will have a “been there, done that” quality. But two of the first week’s offerings you won’t want to miss. The Opening Night selection, Keith Malloy’s Hell or High Water, is a classic portrait of an overlooked demographic, bodysurfers, including our own King of the Torpedo People, Mark Cunningham. (It also screens July 11, 14 and 26.)
Hell or High Water is great fun, but still a surf movie. (I would have liked to have heard more from Cunningham, a sadhu in a Speedo if there ever was one.) One documentary that will rock even a kook screens on July 8, 15 and 28: Splinters, a tale of a remote village in New Guinea, Vanimo, where a single visit by a surfer 20 years earlier spawned a handmade surf culture. Into this seemingly idyllic place steps first-time director Adam Pesce, who just hangs out and films, learning the Tok Pisin language in the process.
The first 20 minutes of the film are a sheer wonder, as the first six months in Vanimo must’ve seemed to Pesce. It’s a prelapsarian surf culture, complete with boards carved from tree trunks, where only 13 percent of the people have jobs and like it that way. Unaware of how good they have it, the surfers study tattered surf magazines and dream of one day visiting the “white man’s villages.” You hope they don’t. And then a surf contest, New Guinea’s first, is announced.
Soon Splinters moves from Eden to something familiar, and much sadder. Pesce doesn’t shirk from showing the harshness of a pre-modern society, or the corruption that a simple photo can bring. He’s masterful in how he handles a triple-threat set of subplots, including one concerning two sister surfers, Cinderellas to the macho men, who steal our hearts and the show. The result is a near-perfect documentary, no matter what the subject matter.