Film Reviews

Nappy Napoleon, swift and sure

To judge from the high spirits at opening night of the Honolulu Surf Film Festival at the Doris Duke Theatre, the island’s in the mood to celebrate life in the waves. Lucky for us, as the Festival moves into its second and third weeks, there’s a lineup of features, shorts and speakers that ought to open eyes, blow minds and maybe even prompt a tear or two (notably, Don King and son Beau at Makapuu in Come Hell or High Water.) Tears and cheers erupted for “Nappy” Napoleon, the low-key 67-year-old star of the short I Just Love to Paddle. Inspired by Nappy’s record of 50 straight Molokai-to-Oahu single-man canoe crossings, Cliff Tillotson suggested doing all of Hawaii’s channels (nine, including to “forbidden” Niihau) in a week (actually six days). “Only a haole think of that,” Nappy says, and only a native Polish haole, Marta Czajowska, thought to make a film–to all our benefit. It’s a trip just watching Nappy’s unbelievably fast strokes and the ease with which he catches and surfs open-ocean swells, outpacing his son and the other, all much younger canoers, while his ocean-going soulmate wife, Anona, guides the escort boat. (July 22 at 1pm and 4pm and July 26 at 1pm,)

Screening with Nappy’s feat is a much longer look into the pioneers of modern surf culture, Paving the Wave, which grabs you in a clumsy but overwhelmingly friendly bear hug. A no-frills series of talk-story sessions with the old guard, including big names like Rabbit Kekai, Peter Cole, Jack O’Neill and Joey Cabell, and lesser-knowns like Tommy Lee and Duke Boyd (founder of Hang Ten), Paving is like sitting on a cat-hair-covered sofa with your most garrulous uncle, the one who lived a totally bitchin’ life while your Dad was going to the office every day. A news crawl at the bottom of the screen provides unintentionally hilarious commentary.

More new school are the shorts, including Agos, a plain and simple documentary about a 30-year-old Filipina surfer. Like the superb Splinters (reviewed last week, showing July 28), this is a story about someone outside of the developed world finding meaning and joy in the waves. Mocha’s standard of living–we’d call it poverty–feels typical to the rural Philippines. But she’s chosen to live far from Manila, and apart from her family, for the waves. Her tiny new house, bought with her earnings at surf contests, is the first real roof over her head, and her son’s. She works as a lifeguard, surfs and is content. To us watching the film, with our health insurance, 401Ks, flatscreens and cars, it is a life barren of possessions and heartbreakingly fragile. Keeping it real, Director Samantha Lee gives us reason to reevaluate our own lives.

At the opposite end of the economic and social spectrum is Lunch Break, which upends a familiar dynamic–Alpha males sharking waves from younger and female surfers–by telling a shiny little local fable of kick-ass girls making some teenage boy surfers miserable. It’s a trifle, a footnote in the gender wars, perfect for schooling your own offspring if he’s acting like a baby Black Shirt.

This brings us to Caught Inside, a feature-length thriller that goes straight for the dark side of surfing and never lets go of our jugulars. Set on one of those once-in-a-lifetime boat-surfing trips, it drops a group of naive surfer lads and lassies into familiar testosterone-charged territory. There will be waves. There will be bikinis. And there will be blood … in the water. (July 22 at 7:30pm and July 27 at 1pm and 8pm.)

Closing night should bring the older generation back into good repute, with Going Surfin’, the last film of pioneer Bud Browne. Released in 1973 (historic winter) it features footage of all those icons (Noll, Trent, Nuuhiwa, Lopez, Hakmen, Bertlemann, etc.) in their prime. (July 29, 1pm and 7:30pm.)