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Surfers front the monster waves: fear, froth and fun at BBFF

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Byron Bay International Film Festival, Media Release, 18 October 2023

It’s the Byron Bay Film Festival, so there’s always going to be surf films. But this year there are more than ever – stories about surfers ranging from the big wave daredevils and others testing themselves against the world’s oceans to a man devoting his life to quietly shaping boards in a tiny coastal town in New Zealand.

Topping the bill is Emmy-winning filmmaker Paul Taublieb’s documentary Ground Swell: The Other Side of Fear, which poses the question: what prompts big wave surfers to travel the globe to find absurdly colossal waves to throw themselves into, tackling natural forces in a contest that any rational human would see as insane?

For some viewers, even the images are terrifying, almost traumatising: men and occasionally women on a narrow sliver of board descending at speed down or across a mountain-sized wave, losing control and plunging – disappearing! –  deep below a seemingly endless wall of turbulent, crashing water, only to emerge what seems like ages later, victorious, even laughing.  

The question about why they do it is answered in the film. It is, quite simply, to overcome fear.

Super-heroes in their courage and toughness, these big-wave daredevils feel the fear and do it anyway: pushing past it to find out what’s on the other side as they tackle gigantic waves in locations from Nazare in Portugal, Jaws and Pipeline in Hawaii, and Mavericks in Northern California.

Narrated and executive produced by Academy Award-nominated actor Josh Brolin in his third collaboration with Taublieb, Ground Swell: The Other Side of Fear takes an an in-depth look at the 2021-22 big wave season through the eyes of Nic Von Rupp, Kai Lenny, Matt Bromley, Torrey Meister, and pioneering female surfer Bianca Valenti, along with a special appearance by Vini dos Santos.

Taublieb, a specialist in long-form feature documentaries, narrative films and short-form viral videos, is famous for his insightful and probing interviews and impactful, cinematic style, says of Ground Swell: “We have done this film to explore not just surfing, but the human experience of dealing with fear and how your best life exists by working through it.”

A very different perspective is explored in the feature-length documentary Point of Change, directed by Rebecca Coley, which tracks the experience of the tiny island of Nias Island, Indonesia, after two surfers ‘discovered’ it in the 1970s, and its ‘Point’ gained a global reputation as the home of the perfect wave.

It wasn’t good, with devastating social and ecological repercussions for the people, and the place.

The film interweaves the deeply personal and the bigger picture, walking a thin line between fixed opinions, to raise questions about change and the future we all face. Coley says her film is about “the forgotten art of keeping a secret. Sometimes sharing what you love can destroy it”.

While surfing is the backbone of the story, it transcends a surfing story to help us look at the issues we face on multiple levels: personal responsibility, social impact and environmental consequences.

The screening at the Lennox Head Cultural Centre will be followed by a panel discussion with surf legends Rusty Miller, Wendy Adcock, Dick Hoole and Kevin Lovett and moderated by Tricia Shantz.

Five strong films make up a Sunday night session at Byron Palace Cinemas titled Olas Y Ondas – Waves and Swells, all exploring Luso-Hispanic surf culture from Portugal to Brazil.

Among them is Bagus Lagi – The Dream Never Ends, which records the experience of free surfer Pedro Booman as he returns to Indonesia for 60 days of surfing after three years of Covid-imposed restrictions. He’s in one of the best resorts in the northern Mentawais, located in the heart of the region’s score of perfect waves, but along with the amazing surf days, there are also challenges and tension.

Highly experienced surf-film director Alexandre Ribas describes his film as about “passion, desires, a dreamer” and the Mentawais Islands “a perfect scenario for incredible images and adventures”.

Bagus Lui screens with Fifth Tide, which shows the life of two women during the rough Portuguese winter season, with huge swells, thundering waves and sharp reefs. Through it all comes their connection to the ocean, to waves and nature, and an emerging sense of sisterhood.

From Spain comes Beyond Frames, a short documentary about surf photographer Jon Aspuru and his journey with Natxo Gonzalez to the tranquil village of Bakio on the north coast in the Basque Country in the early 2000s. Inspired by a connection to nature and the dream of imitating the great surf videographers of the time inspired Aspuru to start filming as a child. Meeting Gonzalez began a journey in which he not only got closer to his dream, but also the beginning of a special friendship. Away from the limelight, their bond is put to the test again and again.

Halfway down the coast of Portugal is the ancient village of Buarcos, home of the longest right hander wave in Europe. Generations of people have tried to surf, with little success. Their story, and that of a local surfer intent on shattering that record, is told in Buarcos – The Unridden Ones, directed by João Traveira.

Finally in the Olas Y Ondas showcase comes Wetsuit, also from Portugal, a film that explores masculine identity through a study of young men torn between a life on land and a life at sea, who wonder what sort of man they will become. It looks at questions of history, women, intimacy and the future of the alpha male.

Elsewhere throughout the Festival you can see:

Yama (in the High School program only) follows Australian surfer and activist Lucy Small and British filmmaker Maddie Meddings as they travel to Ghana to meet a group of pioneering female surfers and skaters. Yama begins in the bustling city of Accra and travels to the wave-rich coastline where there are communities driving the budding Ghanaian surf scene, telling a story of a reclamation and joy. The soundtrack features musicians who are either from or linked to West Africa, especially those who have advocated for women’s rights. Lucy Small & Maddie Meddings

In A New Wave, elite surfer Michael February and his father reflect on what it means to represent South Africa on the world stage. Director Sandra Winther’s Lowland Kids received several awards after its premiere at SXSW in 2019, including the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Palm Springs Shortfest.

Cold Crush travels to the Magdalen Islands, an archipelago of rare beauty east of Quebec where a little more than 12,000 people live. Among them is Alexis Boudreau, a 9th generation fisherman and one of a small community of locals who brave winds and tides by surfing year round.

RAW – the Sound of Teahupo’o is filmed in the heart of the jungle of French Polynesia, close to the most beautiful wave in the world, where famous photographer and filmmaker Tim McKenna has travelled to follow the surfing locals Gilbert Teave and Tahurai Henry during one special day.

Dust is an intimate look into surfing counterculture through the hands of Dave Elley who has been quietly shaping surfboards in Raglan, New Zealand for almost 30 years. Though his talent is widely recognized, he is seldom acknowledged, an anomaly in the industry. Director Ben Bloom says of his subject: “Although mostly invisible to me, there was a method to his madness. Hours spent in his tiny, fume-filled shed revealed a meticulous process that could only be achieved from a lifelong commitment to shaping.”

Ground Swell screens at Palace Byron Bay on Tuesday, October 25 at 7pm and Lennox Cultural Centre on Sunday, October 29 at 6:30pm. Tickets at bbff.com.au

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