At the last surf film screening I attended, I expected to be horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been told would happen to the directors. Everything I’d read online about modern surf film insisted that it was a stupid, brutal, outdated business. Most surf journalists who wrote of surf film condemned the genre as utterly dead and worthless. Even those who wrote well of it, as a historically significant exercise, deplored actually screening new films and were apologetic about the whole thing. The public shaming of the directors, in what were certain to be empty theaters—nobody there because nobody watches surf films anymore—was considered inevitable.
I suppose that from a modern point of view, an Instagram point of view, the whole surf film charade is silly. Who has time for anything more than a minute long? The best clips aren’t held for some archaic, long-form nonsense. They are instantly run up the flagpole, gathering likes and starry-eyed emojis by the megabyte, bringing a euphoric sense of self that psychologists at Cosmopolitan refer to as the “reward cycle.”
Likes and starry-eyed emojis trigger the same dopamine receptors as winning money or eating chocolate, Cosmopolitan’s psychologists say. Likes and starry-eyed emojis, or sometimes heart-eyed emojis, that come straight from the user to the surfer himself or herself. There is no need to wait months or years for clapping hands, loud whistles, and “yew” shouts. No need for anything to be filtered through a director.
I should not try to defend surf film or the surf film director, but I must tell honestly the things I have found to be true. I went to the Florida Surf Film Festival to see surf films and write about the various films for myself. I thought they would be simple, boring, outdated, stupid, and that I would not like them very much. But I still had to go and learn and know what modern surf film truly felt like. I had to keep my eyes open, longer than a minute, and force my attention span to track along. I couldn’t allow myself to turn away when the directors went on stage to introduce their various surf films, gazing out at an audience of four who all also happen to be surf film directors.
Also, I went because I accidentally directed a surf film that would be playing at the festival, the second accidental surf film that I accidentally directed, and being on stage and gazing out at an audience of three who all happen to be sound engineers or possibly producers, letting the shame wash over me, would be a valuable exercise no matter how horrifying and sickening.
I woke up hot and sweaty the morning of the festival and spent the day surfing in New Smyrna’s warm water while getting stung in the midsection by creatures the locals call “sea needles.” They were small, white, long, and thin, and they got stuck in my trunks, causing extreme discomfort. I wondered if the sea needles were a metaphor for what I would experience that night. At dinner I felt my stomach roll—not from nerves, for what was there to be nervous about? The two color correctionists who would be there to witness each other’s work? No, I was not nervous at all, but I was not looking forward to the shame that was certain to sting. Pure embarrassment.
I decided to not put it off any longer. I got in my car and headed to the Atlantic Center for the Arts where the film festival was being held. I drove through a swamp where giant prehistoric trees draped in Spanish moss ran into a knot of cars with no place to park. Cars were being turned away by the dozen by a fit man in a black polo shirt and their drivers had very angry faces. Frowns and red eyes hidden behind Maui Jim sunglasses. Children screaming in backseats. I saw a barrier set up across the road with a sign reading “SOLD OUT” taped to it.
I wondered which artist was here—which painter or sculptor showing their work elsewhere in the complex—who could draw so many people in Florida. Maybe Thomas Kinkade, the Painter of Light™. Possibly Jon McNaughton, the “most famous pro-Trump, mass-market painter of the 21st century,” according to The Washington Post. I eased up to the man in the black polo shirt, apologized, and told him I was not there for the sold-out event, but a surf film festival that I was told was on the grounds but may, in fact, be in a broom closet elsewhere. He laughed and said, “This is the film festival.” I could not understand what I was witnessing, so I apologized again and told him that he must be mistaken.
But he wasn’t. Hundreds of people mingled, maybe even thousands. Old and young were equally represented. There was an even split between men and women, too. Everyone was excited, buzzing, chatting about surf films they had seen recently and which surf films they were excited to see that night. I only believed this was actually happening when the lights dimmed and a surf film flickered onto the screen. It was Cult Of Freedom by Joe G, a surf film director whose name I remembered from long ago, back when surf film mattered. It was a masterpiece of light and sound, and the audience shouted and hooted. Next was The Seawolf by Ben Gulliver and it was cinematic art, telling the story of cold-water surfing in Canada.
The emotion of the audience swelled with each film. The directors and surfers were greeted like heroes and their short speeches were listened to with rapt attention. I marveled and my confusion grew. How was this happening? How was this happening today, in our time? Isn’t surf film dead? At that moment, I realized a very simple truth. The modern point of view, an Instagram point of view, lacks time for art to breathe and lacks a human connection, though it pretends to offer both. Surf film, on the other hand, truly does, especially watching surf film live. Also, while Instagram and the other social medias allow the surfer to connect directly with his fans, the surf film allows the surfer’s movements to be filtered through a director’s soul. The mélange cannot be faked. The product that surfer and director make together carries weight.
Now, it must be said, a chance exists that the first surf film festival which any spectator attends may not be a good one, artistically. For that to happen there must be good directors and good surfers. Beautiful, exceptional, artistic directors alongside poor surfers do not make interesting surf film. Likewise, if a competent director without genius or great inspiration happens to make a film about a truly brave surfer, even the best surfer in the world like Gabriel Medina, then it still may not reach the level of art. The spectator will be confused, visually, by the many things he or she is seeing and by the mixed metaphors.
But when a great director and a great surfer come together in a surf film the result is near perfection and only fails to be considered one of the major arts, like sculpture or oil painting, because of its relative impermanence. Great surf films, like the dance upon waves that it captures, exist mostly in the moment. The spike of emotion. The sense of everything rising.
I saw Kevin Miller, one of the cofounders of the Florida Surf Film Festival, standing behind a large control panel as I pushed through a wall of spectators who were watching Chippa Wilson fly through the air in otherworldly slow motion. Miller was twisting nobs—adjusting the volume, turning it up as the spectators began to cheer louder. Louder was met by louder again. I asked him what he was most looking forward to and he told me about a film called In Dancing Days Of Dawn, a new feature by twenty-one-year-old Chris “Mowgli” Miyashiro, “a young, innovative eye,” according to Miller. I asked him why surf film matters, especially live. “When you get someone’s hard work on the screen,” he answered, “and it’s met with full-throated enthusiasm and respect by groms and drunk rednecks and adult learners alike, it’s really something. And not just for the audience. The directors, editors, and filmmakers get a sense of release, I think, when all their hard work is met with such exuberance.”
I nodded, understanding what he meant implicitly. It’s a purposeful slowness that makes a moment, even an impermanent moment, become permanent in a way Instagram uploads, vlogs, and Facebook posts never can—wrapped in honest, human response.
I saw John Brooks, the other cofounder, standing in a corner with a smile spreading across his face as I pushed through a wall of spectators who were watching Canadian Pete Devries throwing an axe to his side. I asked him what is most impressive about modern surf film. He answered: “We’re starting to see quality work from people you’ve never heard of. Advancement in technology means that one person can make a whole film by themself. An individual can manage every part of the process, from shooting to editing to scoring.”
Finally, it was my turn to go on stage. I pressed against the spectators and made my way up, climbing the stairs one at a time, bathed in warm lights. I took the microphone ready to tell everyone how wrong I had been about surf film and how it is the only surf medium that matters (besides printed magazines and gossip blogs). But before opening my mouth I felt incredible pain in my midsection. One of the dreaded sea needles had stowed away, waiting for just the right moment to give me hell. The pain dropped me to my knees and I muttered incoherently and crawled to the side of the stage.
That night at the bar, I overheard no word of sympathy for my meek performance as I sat drinking mojitos in the corner.
“Chas was torpid, he was out of training,” someone said. “Why did he insist on being a surf film director? Why did he go down on both knees?”
“Because he is a coward,” someone else replied. “The knees are for cowards.”
“But if he is a coward,” the first voice asked redundantly, “why did he insist on becoming a surf film director?”
I thought about informing them of the sea needles but thought better of it and made a mental note to watch In Dancing Days Of Dawn as soon as I could. Live, if possible.
Chas Smith is a documentary filmmaker, surf journalist, and a cofounder of Beach Grit. He is the author of Welcome To Paradise, Now Go To Hell and Cocaine + Surfing: A Sordid History of Surfing’s Greatest Love Affair.