Oceanic Feeling

An conversation with film director Michael Oblowitz.

Light / Dark

Michael Oblowitz is best known to surfers as the director behind the 2010 film Sea of Darkness, the documentary that chronicles the founding of G-Land by Mike Boyum and the drug smuggling culture that helped kick-start the nascent surf industry. The film won the Surfer Poll Award for Best Documentary and a number of others at major international film festivals. But due to rights issues, and other more obscure reasons, the film was never released. Available only in torrent form, it has a claim to be the most bootlegged documentary in surf history. 

Oblowitz’s latest film, Heavy Water, delves deep into the roots and mindset of surf culture through the life of Nathan Fletcher. Unlike Sea of Darkness, Heavy Water has enjoyed wide release. Another surf-related film Oblowitz has in development is a Sunny Garcia biopic, which he’s been working on for almost a decade. 

I caught up with the filmmaker on the balcony of a Biarritz hotel in June. Heavy Water premiered at the Anglet International Surf Film Festival the night before and Oblowitz was halfway through a European screening tour that was taking in 12 cities in 15 days. Yet for the 67 year old, whose raspy voice mangles his 30-year residences in New York and LA with his South African roots, this isn’t his first rodeo. 

Oblowitz has had a remarkable career in film and art that began with his infiltration of New York’s avant-garde No Wave scene in the 1970s. His early films, which include X-terminator (1977), The Is/Land-Circuits of Control (1978), Minus Zero (1979), and King Blank (1982) are in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He’s  made feature films with Val Kilmer, Billy Zane, and Steven Seagal. Oblowitz has also directed hundreds of commercials, and made music videos for artists like David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Diana Ross, Carly Simon, Carole King, and John Lee Hooker. With degrees in fine arts and philosophy, and an MFA in film from Columbia University, he’s lectured across the world. 

Our three-hour conversation was dominated by the raconteur wit and fierce intellect of a man who has lived life to the fullest. We touched on subjects as varied as Marxist theory, post-colonialism, the Bronzed Aussies, early deconstructionist art, and the Makaha rip. The central tenet, though, of Oblowitz’s film, art, and photography has been his love of the ocean and surfing, which he has sustained feverishly since he was born in Cape Town. 

With French pastries, strong coffee, and Oblowitz’s ability to hold court, we sat down in the Basque sun and trawled through a fascinating life by starting at the very beginning.

On location shooting for Oblowitz’s Nathan Fletcher biopic, Heavy Water. Unlike most from Hollywood who wade into surfing, Oblowitz has the background and bona fides to present it authentically—and to throw himself in the fire. Photograph by Hank Foto.

BM Where did you grow up? 

MO I grew up on the beach in Cape Town. My Dad had just escaped the Nazis and got out of Lithuania as the Holocaust was starting. He had enough money stitched in his coat by his father to make it across Europe to Southampton and then on to South Africa. I remember him telling the story of the Nazis boarding the train he was on and making the passengers pull their trousers down. If your dick was circumcised, they’d shoot you. With that as an origin story you learn a different relationship to fear.

BM When did you come along? 

MO By the time I was born in 1952, my dad owned a beautiful house on Saunders’ Rocks Beach. He designed and built it using rock from the beach. He met my mother on that beach. His whole life played out on that stretch. The ocean represented his liberation from Europe and the Nazis. I was born, and he was reborn, in Cape Town. 

BM Was surfing around in Cape Town in the 1950s?

MO I was about six when I saw an old VW van pull up with boards on top. Two guys hopped out and paddled out to the break in front of my house, which we now call Gasworks. A third man went to the rocks carrying this black device. That was Bruce Brown and he was filming The Endless Summer. It was the first time I had ever seen surfing or a movie camera. That was the first time I saw my destiny. 

BM Did you start surfing right away?

MO I grew up bodysurfing, but from that day I started badgering my father for a camera and a surfboard. When I was about eight my dad bought me a camera and I became obsessed and filmed everything I could. I think I was given my first custom surfboard when I was 12 or so. However I never filmed surfing. I wanted to be in the water when the waves were good. 

BM So this was the 1960s. How was surfing Cape Town in those years? 

MO I started surfing and then my brother came along, and we pioneered so many spots along the coast. We had heroes to follow like the Paarman brothers, who were much better surfers than us. It was such an incredible time to surf. We had these huge, amazing waves all to ourselves. 

BM But eventually you decided to leave? 

MO Back then in South Africa, at 18 you had to do a mandatory three years in the army. I did about four months after I graduated from high school and it was fucking terrifying. The South African apartheid regime was fighting a war with the Russian-backed Angolans. One day we were in the trenches, and I saw an Afrikaner kid jump up out of terror and get hit by a bullet and die next to me. At that moment I said, “I’m getting out of here, whatever it takes.” 

BM What did it take?

MO After about four months I remember looking down at my ankles. Remember this was the beginning of the 1970s. We were already riding shorter boards, but we’d been on longboards for most of the 60s. And I had these gigantic bumps on both ankles from paddling on my knees. I went to the doctor and said, “Look what the army boots are doing to my ankles. I really want to go fight for the country, but I can’t walk. The boots are crippling me.” 

BM Sounds like something out of a John Milius movie.

MO Man, it was. I loved Big Wednesday because it was exactly what I went through. Anyway the doctor had never seen anything like it. They put me on light duties permanently, and because I had good grades I was eventually exempted so I could go to university. However, they were going to check my medical condition after three years of college and send me back to the army. So I bailed from South Africa. 

BM Where did you go? 

MO I had an older cousin, Jacob Blacker, who had also dodged the draft and immigrated to London. And because my mother was English I could legally live there, too. Jacob was becoming a prominent architect and became my mentor in all intellectual, artistic, and decadent pursuits. From him, I also inherited a real political consciousness. 

BM Had that developed living in South Africa?

MO It absolutely did, but he refined it. I spent my life staring out my bedroom window across the never-ending, ten-foot swells to Robben Island. We knew that Nelson Mandela and a bunch of black revolutionaries were jailed there. So my political consciousness was fired up. I’d always listened to the old blues records and I figured out that everything that came from the blues came from American slave culture. One thing I knew from South Africa was slave culture. I’d witnessed it and protested it. London was great, but I wanted to learn about the roots of everything and America seemed like the obvious place to go. I left the comfort of Britain and went to New York—a place I had no rhyme nor reason to be.

BM What year was this?

MO I think it was around 1975. I was lucky that Anton Fig, one of my closest surfing buddies from Cape Town, was living there. He went on to be the drummer on the Dave Letterman show, but he was just starting out then. We got a loft for 100 bucks a month in Hell’s Kitchen. I just loved the place and I loved the artists, and I somehow got absorbed into the underground music and art scene that was really just starting to cook. 

BM What was the scene like? 

MO At the time I was a pretty sophisticated student of art, and I really found my place in New York. I became friends with artists like Julian Schnabel, Ross Bleckner, and filmmakers Amos Poe and Jim Jarmusch. Allan Tannenbaum gave me my first job as a staff photographer for The Soho Weekly News. Later I worked with and married Rosemary Hochschild, an incredible New York writer and actor. You know, everything worked out beyond my wildest dreams. 

BM Was surfing a part of your life then?

MO Not really, until I became friends with Julian. He’s been a surfer his whole life. At one stage I reckon Julian, Anton, and I were the only surfers living in downtown Manhattan. And then Julian, just like that, became the most famous painter in the world. One day he said, “Mike, you need to meet an old friend of mine, Herbie Fletcher.” We all became surfing buddies straightaway.

“I was about six when I saw an old VW van pull up with boards on top. Two guys paddled out in front of my house. A third went to the rocks carrying this device. That was Bruce Brown filming The Endless Summer. That was the first time I saw my destiny.”

BM Where were you surfing then? 

MO Julian had made so much money he was renting Andy Warhol’s estate, which was right on this Montauk pointbreak. I can still remember a day I arrived at his place for a surf in 1982. He’d strung these 20-foot by 30-foot canvases up on the wire mesh walls of the tennis courts. He was working on this giant black painting with gold lettering. He had tears running down his face and the words, written in French, said, “Jean-Michel est mort.” That was the day he had found out that Basquiat, who he had mentored, had died. It was like I was standing in the middle of art history. That’s what New York was like for me in the late 70s and early 80s. 

BM And you guys are still in touch?

MO Yeah, we are still great friends. Larry Gasogian did a special screening of Heavy Water to commemorate Herbie Fletcher’s art, and Julian presented it. So it has come full circle, 35 years later. 

BM But during most of that time you weren’t making any movies dealing with surfing. 

MO I still have no interest in making, “surfing movies.” I just want to make movies. I’ve made at least 30 films, more than 200 music videos, and hundreds of commercials. The films cover everything from North Korean pottery to Hollywood blockbusters to documentaries with the Queer German Cinema pioneer Rosa von Praunheim. Looking back, the documentary on death that Rosa and I made at the beginning of the AIDS crisis has probably strongly influenced my surf-related films. They are kind of meditations on death.

BM Watching Heavy Water, I felt like it was the narrative around the death of Sion Milosky that really provides the emotional and artistic heft of the movie. 

MO Yes, there’s tragedy, pathos, and emotional arcs in both Sea of Darkness and Heavy Water. I think that’s why they have resonated so strongly with the public and are in many ways my most popular movies. I also think the Sunny Garcia movie will be equally powerful. I think I’ve made that connection because the ocean has been a central part of my life since the day I was born. 

BM The movies have also generated a fair degree of controversy. Sea of Darkness has yet to be released and Heavy Water had a difficult gestation. 

MO Making Heavy Water was a pig fuck in a barnyard [laughs]. This film was not easy to get done. Initially, because of Sea of Darkness, everyone thought the Nathan Fletcher film was going to be all about drugs. However, really, that was the furthest thing from my mind. This was supposed to be an easy get-in, get-out, and move-on process. But it became another crazy turn on the North Shore wheel.

BM I’d imagine the North Shore can be a hard place to make films and do business.

MO For me it was terrifying because I had no desire to become famous as a surfing filmmaker. I’d been going to Hawaii for years and surfing was what I did to get away from filmmaking. But after Sea of Darkness won the Surfer Poll Award on the North Shore in 2010, suddenly I knew everybody, for better or worse. However, when I met Sunny Garcia and became close, we decided to do this documentary together. For me, Sunny looked like the perfect portal to understand Native Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture and American colonialism and imperialism. 

BM What did you see in Sunny that could help explain that?  

MO In Sunny, I saw a man who had been imprinted upon by colonial culture in ways that maybe neither he, nor anybody, really understood, including myself. His psyche was so tormented because he represented the kind of historical tipping point between contemporary professional surfing and the ancient Hawaiian surfing tradition. As depressed and sad as I am about Sunny’s current fate, I’m also excited to create this massive tribute to his life and the culture that created him.

BM Do you think the boy on the beach who saw Bruce Brown all those years ago could have imagined he’d end up with the career and life you’ve had?  

MO Well, Freud called the place when you merge the unconscious and the conscious minds—and finally understand yourself—“the oceanic feeling.” I have the ocean running through my veins. I’m in the back nine, or even the back three, holes of my life now, but every time I do a long, hard paddle and catch a wave at Makaha I feel the DNA imprint of my youth at Cape Town coming through. I feel and smell that oceanic feeling. I’ll keep doing that until I die.

Illustration by Johanna Walderdorff.