THE CHURCH OF THE OPEN SKY
Nathan Oldfield has released his latest film, The Church of the Open Sky. Lauren Hill, who also appears in the film, gets the lowdown on the filmmaker and his film.
Nathan Oldfield is a humble artist. He pieces together beautiful projects in the space between living a full life as a surfer, father, husband, friend and nearly 20 years as a schoolteacher. His ‘editing suite’ is a desk nestled between the kids’ rooms and the family bathroom. He slaps on noise cancelling headphones and tinkers away at editing his movies, while kids stream past and chores wait to be finished. His workflow is a refreshing reminder that making a creative contract with inspiration need not be your job, but a natural part of crafting a meaningful life.
Nathan recently completed his sixth film, The Church of the Open Sky. Like his previous films, including Seaworthy, Gathering and The Heart and the Sea, Nathan’s newest cinematic venture is further evidence of his poetic ability to reflect the beauty of a surfing life – not only the visual beauty of our aquatic lives, but the rich blessing of how a surfing life feels.
Why movie making?
I’ve been passionate about surfing and surf films since I was a kid. Watching The Endless Summer as a six or seven year-old, while on Christmas holidays at my cousin’s house in Avalon, had a big impact on me. I was just a grommet bodysurfing and messing around on boogie boards in the shorebreak at the time. But deep down in my heart I knew that I was going to be a lifelong surfer like my Dad and his brothers. Somehow I also felt that I had a surf film in me. That dream lay dormant for a long time, until my mid twenties really, mostly because I was more focussed on surfing than I was on documenting it. But a lifetime of photography paved the way for a desire to create moving pictures.
Was there a niche of surf movies that you felt weren’t being made when you took to the camera?
At the time the surf film genre was almost exclusively saturated with the model that Taylor Steele pioneered: standard shortboard trick catalogues set to nineties’ punk. There were, of course, some notable exceptions, such as Andrew Kidman’s Litmus, Thomas Campbell’s
The Seedling and Chris Malloy’s Thicker Than Water. But those kinds of movies were few and far between. It was especially the authentic storytelling in those movies that inspired me. They were the genre that I gravitated to, and the sort of films I wanted to make. Also, at a time when most of the surfing world had long been drinking the Kool-Aid of rockered-out, wafer-thin, narrow thrusters, I’d spent most of the nineties riding old single-fins, variations of fish surfboards and logs that I’d made in my backyard.
It must be daunting to make longer movies in the age of ADD web clips. Are they still relevant?
All my life I’ve had the desire to make things: surfboards, songs, poems, films, tracks on a wave. Surf films nurture that deep down innate longing I have to create things. Also, I value how significant surf films are to surfing culture. I have personally experienced how surfing films can change a life. That was how deeply films like The Endless Summer or Morning of the Earth affected me. So, I think you could say that I see my films as a way of giving back to surfing.
Can you talk about where the title came from? The title is a paraphrase of an expression Tom Blake used. For those who don’t know, Blake was probably the most influential surfer of the first half of last century after Duke Kahanamoku. For Blake, surfing was a deeply personal, meaningful and spiritual experience. He was a self-professed
pantheist, and coined the equation ‘Nature = God.’ I think that idea resonates with a lot of surfers. He likened surfing to worship under what he called ‘the blessed church of the open sky.’ I always loved that line and one day it occurred to me that it would be a perfect title for the film that I was already shooting.
The idea that surfing is a metaphysical activity, and not just a physical activity or sport, is something that I have felt throughout my surfing life. It’s a theme that’s already emerged in other films I’ve made. The other thing that I like about the title of the film is that it is inclusive for everyone. We are all under the church of the open sky. No one is excluded or left out in the cold. Everyone’s welcome. It’s a shared, communal thing. A universal fellowship. Plus, I just like how the phrase sounds – it’s romantic, dreamy, mysterious and gentle.
What was the most illuminating moment when making The Church of the Open Sky?
There were so many moments of pure joy it’s hard to pick just one. I don’t want to give too much away, but while shooting the opening sequence in remote Papua New Guinea, I was able to witness some kids surfing in front of their village, along a little patch of reef in the middle of nowhere.
It was the most elemental, pure surfing that I have ever personally seen – just flawless, natural, uncontrived play. It was a reminder to me that surfing is so universal and simple and somehow so beautifully human. I had goose bumps and tears in my eyes while shooting. The other experiences that I’m grateful for are all the travel moments I was able to share with my family and close friends while making the film.
Can you describe the journey that Church takes the viewer on?
The film is shot in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka. So it has a bit more on exotic, island vibe than other films I’ve made in the past. It takes the viewer on a journey through these places. I think a lot of us who have experienced the gift of travel would agree that as we are travelling through places we are also journeying within ourselves. It can be a very transformative experience. And because, as I said earlier, everything is sacred, then travel can also be seen as a kind of pilgrimage. Somehow, surf trips can become bigger and richer and more generous than we might first imagine. To find out more and to order a DVD go to www.nathanoldfield.com
Exotic headdresses, Papua New Guinea. New Zealand, dreamtime.
Lola Mignot, on the nose.