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European longboard champion and filmmaker Damien Castera on the enduring spirit of Ukrainian artists while under constant Russian attack.
Interview by Ben Mondy
Light / Dark
At a beach bar in France, Damien Castera raises a cold, frosted glass of continental lager and points to a roping left-hander spinning down a mini isthmus of Hossegor sand. It’s 80 degrees in the shade of an umbrella, offshore, with 4 feet of swell lining the Atlantic. For the prior hour, I’d watched the square-jawed, impossibly handsome goofyfoot stylishly rip the bowl.
“It feels so strange to surf, and party, and enjoy all this freedom, when last week I was in east Ukraine in a war zone with bombs raining from the sky,” Castera says. “It feels like an alternative reality. I’m still trying to process it.”
Castera, 38, spent his twenties as a professional surfer,successful first in shortboarding and later in longboarding. But in the last decade he’s turned his considerable talents to exploration, writing, photography, and filmmaking. He’s probably best known as the director of the 2020 film Water Get No Enemy, which documented child soldiers in Liberia who had swapped their assault rifles for surfboards. His other films include Shaka, which follows pro snowboarder Mathieu Crépel on a mission to surf Jaws, and Odisea: Des Andes au Pacifique, where he joined Crépel in a surfing and snowboarding adventure in Alaska.
European surf commentator and coach Vico Hamel describes Castera as “one of the smartest surfers I have ever met, an author of several books, and a member of the exclusive French Explorers Society.” To those attributes, we can add empathy. With his keen interest in geopolitical conflict, Castera followed the Ukraine situation closely in the lead-up to the Russian invasion. When the war started, he packed his van with medical supplies and undertook the four-day drive to the Romania-Ukraine border. Initially, the plan was to drop the goods off with an NGO, but when asked if he wanted to continue to Lviv, the western Ukraine city, he pushed on. Once there, he was asked to provide long-form reports for a national French newspaper.
With very few filmmakers in the country, Castera decided to return to France, grab his camera as well as collaborator and director of photography Michael Darrigade, and return to make a documentary based on artists living through the war. He is now editing the footage, which he hopes to show at the Sundance Film Festival. Castera’s experience has left him, like the artists he followed, with an unlikely sense of hope. He is still in contact with the musicians and painters he met in Ukraine, getting regular updates as the war continues to devastate their country. In the middle of an incredible run of fall waves in the fall of 2022, I caught up with him at his home in Anglet to discuss the experience, the film, and just how a former professional surfer ended up on the front line of Europe’s latest war.
BM You traveled to Ukraine at the outset of the conflict. How did that come about?
DC I figured [that] unlike Yemen, Syria, or Afghanistan, which are remote countries and difficult to access for people who want to volunteer, Ukraine was located at the gates of Europe. I was close enough to help. At the start of the war, I made a deal with the pharmacy in my neighborhood and the Orthodox church in Biarritz. I filled my van with medical supplies and drove for four days to the Ukrainian border on the Romanian side. Once the supplies were delivered, I wanted to work as a volunteer helping refugees. Unfortunately, speaking neither Ukrainian nor Romanian, I was limited in what I could do.
BM How did you eventually get into Ukraine?
DC I had written previously for the French national newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche. When they found out I was near the border, they asked me to write a logbook or a diary from Ukraine. It’s quite different from working as a journalist. Journalists process information in a factual, objective way, with figures and dates. They list the number of deaths and make geopolitical analyses. But I wanted to do it with a subjective narrative.This was done a lot in the last century with first-person reports like those of Albert Londres or Joseph Kessel. This makes it possible to describe your emotions and the atmosphere. Besides, Kessel had a very nice way to describe his status as a reporter. He said he was “a witness among men.”
BM How did the documentary aspect come about?
DC I quickly realized most of the reporting, understandably, was focused on death and destruction. But I had met so many writers, artists, and musicians, and I thought it was important to tell their stories because they were carrying on with their art. So I drove back to France and decided to get my camera and make a film. There were just war correspondents in Ukraine, so there was a chance to tell a unique side of it. My colleague and filmer Michael Darrigade, whom I collaborated with on our last film, Water Get No Enemy, was interested, so he came on the journey with me.
BM You were a professional surfer and European Longboard Champion. Where didthis love for adventure or danger come from?
DC I don’t chase or enjoy danger. I’m not somebody that craves loads of adrenaline. Even when I was young, I found school so restrictive and boring. So I read a lot of books. I loved Jack London, the books of Hemingway, and Joseph Conrad. As a child, I think I was nourished by all the expedition stories that came to hand, from Shackleton’s polar missions to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French airmail pioneer. More than the physical challenge and the way many of them tried to maintain their courage in the face of danger, I was in love with this thirst for freedom, something for which adventurers were ready to take all the risks. I saw in these great voyages an infallible way of sucking the marrow of existence, of apprehending the delicious vertigo of the unknown. They were my mentors, really, because none of my family had done anything like that.
DM The film you’re working on now is centered on the artists still making art in thewar zone. Why did that become the focus?
DC I wanted to show the immersion in the daily life of these women and men who use art as a means of escape and resistance. I met graffiti artists who were painting military cars to take to the front line, and fashion students making vests and fatigues for soldiers. In Kyiv, these artists were living in the metro—underground for two months. The musicians would do concerts, the artists would do art lessons for the children. There was a unit leader for an unexploded ordnance team who used music to galvanize his men. In Kharkiv, there was constant, intense shelling. But the artists showed me how important it was to continue to play music, to sing and dance, to try and keep the positive aspects of their lives that they had before the war. The simple fact of living normally was an act of resistance. They need that so as not to sink into anguish, and to keep hope alive. I tried as best as I could to be a silent observer and never interfere with the events. The aim of the film was, above all, to capture the humanity that emerges from this chaos.
BM How did you decide where to go next in what was a war-torn country? And just howdangerous was it?
DC We followed the front line as it progressed from Kyiv in west Ukraine to the east. As we traveled, there was more bombing, but over time you adjust. I wanted to get as close to the edge of the war as possible, but we had to be patient and careful. I was so focused on telling the story that I wasn’t scared, but I did live with constant tension and nervousness deep in my stomach. It’s not fear, but by the end, I was so tired, just because it was so intense. I mentioned Conrad before as a hero, and at times it did feel like I was on my own journey into the heart of darkness. Kharkiv was the most dangerous, as it was just 20 miles from the Russian border. In such a risky area, we were able to pass the checkpoints thanks to the special forces of the Kraken unit. We accompanied a group of volunteers who brought food to the last inhabitants stranded near the front line. It was in one of these villages that a column of tanks launched an offensive. On the last day, 20 bombs fell just 200 meters from our hotel. That’s when we decided we’d had enough. We were lucky—we could leave—but others are still there living and fighting.
BM Does surfing seem a little frivolous or unimportant after witnessing the war firsthand?
DC Well, it was a little weird at first. It felt almost like an alternate reality. But, if anything, it makes my passion for surfing even more important. My life involves different experiences. Last summer, I had three months in Indo during COVID. And this year, I was in Ukraine. Next summer, I’m preparing to sail a Hobie Cat 2,000 miles from Vancouver up the Alaskan coast, searching for waves.
BM Do you look back on your surfing career as being very far removed from what youdo now?
DC In 2011, when I had just won a European Longboard Cup and finished fifth in the world rankings, I put an end to my career as a competitor to devote myself to the voyage of exploration. The goal then was to discover unexplored waves by bringing together surfing and adventure. Bivouac, walking, survival, encounters in the wild— surfing was no longer an end, but a pretext and a reward. A friend told me, “Adventure is living your childhood dreams with adult means.” In Alaska, I built cabins in forests full of bears and searched for gold with a miner. Everything I dreamed of when I was a kid reading Jack London happened. Then I went to Papua New Guinea and Liberia, and in those places I became more interested in social, almost anthropological, themes. It has all folded into one [in my work], but surfing remains crucial to many of my big decisions.
BM It’s been a while since you left Ukraine, and the fighting continues. What are the main things you took from the experience?
DC This Ukrainian experience was one of the richest and hardest of my life. I feel I witnessed history—great movements of solidarity and humanity, but also horrors. It would be a banality to say that it is in the face of death that life takes on its full value, yet many people there think so. It was also inspirational to see how the population defended their country. The spirit of the Ukrainian people was incredible, and they were all helping and supporting each other in every way. Maybe it was the same in France during World War II, but I’ve never witnessed anything like it. In the face of trauma and tragedy, their togetherness was incredible. Ukraine has a long and complicated history, and there has been a real sense of west and east Ukraine as being very different, almost different countries, but now there’s real unity. There’s one flag. It’s one country.
[Feature Image: Surf wanderings on horseback in Patagonia and in-water chops in evidence in warmer climes. Photo by Greg Rabejac]