FROM GIDGET TO GILMORE… GIRLS ON FILM

Demi Tay­lor, di­rec­tor of the Lon­don Surf Film Fes­ti­val, takes us through the his­tory of fe­male surf movies...

Surf Girl - - 70s -

It’s Sun­day morn­ing and I’m at home, watch­ing a surf movie, wait­ing for the tide to drop out. Clutch­ing a cof­fee, my eyes are glued to the screen as the surfer drops down the face of a beau­ti­ful head-high wall, snap­ping off the top, arms re­laxed, be­fore cut­ting back deep into the pocket and speed­ing down the line. They are back­lit, sil­hou­et­ted, but the fluid lines are seam­less, the rad­i­cal el­e­gance un­mis­tak­able, en­vi­able. “Let’s see that wave again.” My boyfriend has wan­dered into the room and is also in­stantly mes­mer­ized, watch­ing the per­son Kelly Slater called, “God’s gift to surfing,” style it out on a twin­nie. We are of course watch­ing Steph Gilmore. In 30 min­utes of pure surf stoke, she’ll work her way through 12 ‘fun boards’ shaped for her by some of the world’s most in­ter­est­ing, al­ter­na­tive board mak­ers, rid­ing them and re­view­ing them for the lat­est edi­tion of the Elec­tric Acid Surfboard Test (Dir. Ash­ton Gog­gans). While the best board may be up for de­bate, one thing is for sure: this is not a guy’s movie, it’s not a girl’s movie, it’s a surf movie pure and simple, and some­thing has changed.

It’s 60 years since Hol­ly­wood’s Gidget first brought the beach life­style and surf cul­ture to the main­stream con­scious­ness. Set against the back­drop of a bur­geon­ing youth cul­ture, the story is based loosely on the real life ex­pe­ri­ences of a teen surfer, Kathy Kohner Zuck­er­man, try­ing to make her way into the scene and into the line up at Mal­ibu in the late 50s – a time when men like Dora, Tubesteak et al ruled the waves. “I couldn’t re­late to the girly thing,” re­calls Zuck­er­man. “So when I found Mal­ibu I thought, this is it. I’m go­ing to learn how to surf. I’ve found my place.” While the film may now seem kitsch and out­moded, its at­tempts to cap­ture the surfing sub­cul­ture – the lan­guage and lore – and it’s wider im­pact can’t be un­der­es­ti­mated. The teen rom-com her­alded the start of the surfing boom, which saw lit­er­ally thou­sands of wouldbe wave rid­ers flock to the Cal­i­for­nia coast­line, and at the heart of it all was a girl learn­ing to surf on a $35 Mike Doyle board. A year later, Surfer Mag­a­zine launched and surf cul­ture in print and in film be­gan to take hold in earnest.

The 60s, 70s and 80s were punc­tu­ated by now iconic surf movies from End­less Sum­mer to Crys­tal Voy­ager and Green Iguana. And while world-class fe­male surfers from Linda Benson, Jeri­cho Pop­pler and Joyce Hoffman, to Frieda Zamba, Pam Bur­ridge and Rell Sunn featured in surf films and doc­u­men­taries of the times, of­ten their ap­pear­ances were lit­tle more than cameos or nov­el­ties.

In 1991, all this changed and once again Hol­ly­wood was the un­likely source with Point Break. Bear with me.

For the wave-rid­ing world this Mar­mite film is at best a pas­tiche of the scene – surfers rob­bing banks to fi­nance an end­less sum­mer. While Rolling Stone mag­a­zine called it, ‘the great­est fe­male-gaze ac­tion movie ever’, this is not about Bodhi or Johnny Utah. Hands down, the coolest and best-defined char­ac­ter was Lori Petti’s Tyler Endi­cott. She worked a fast-food job to max­i­mize her wa­ter time, she ripped, she drove a beat-up Porsche 356 Speed­ster, and saved Keanu Reeve’s char­ac­ter from drown­ing, send­ing him in with the clas­sic line: “You wanna com­mit sui­cide, you do it some­place else! This pig-board piece of shit! You got no busi­ness out here!” She had at­ti­tude and grit, but un­der­neath it had that surf spirit which means you look out for oth­ers. The film was di­rected by Kathryn Bigelow, who’d go on to win an Os­car for Hurt Locker. She de­liv­ered us a fe­male surf protagonis­t with a strong body, a strong mind and a strong char­ac­ter – a fe­male surfer we could be­lieve in and as­pire to.

A decade later, spawned by jour­nal­ist Su­san Or­lean’s ar­ti­cle in Out­side Mag­a­zine about the ‘Surf Girls of Maui’, Hol­ly­wood de­liv­ered Blue Crush. This served up a whole raft of strong fe­male surfers on the big screen, from ac­tors to the real deal pros like Sa­noe Lake, Coco Ho, Keala Ken­nely and Rochelle Bal­lard. As with most main­stream takes on surfing, the mer­its of the film – equal parts part rom-com and girl power – are de­bat­able, but what’s in­dis­putable is the seis­mic shift in surfing and the global boom in women tak­ing to the wa­ter that re­sulted. “To be a surfer girl… is per­haps the apogee of all that is cool and wild and mod­ern and sexy and de­fi­ant,” wrote Su­san Or­lean and it cap­tured the zeit­geist. “The Blue Crush phe­nom­e­non” was real; surfing and fe­male surfers were ev­ery­where.

Away from the bright lights of Hol­ly­wood, Thomas Campbell’s ground-break­ing tril­ogy of en­sem­ble art films, Seedling, Sprout and The Present, re­leased over a decade from 1999, featured the very best of fe­male surfing from the likes of Kas­sia Meador, Belinda Baggs and Sofia Mu­lanovich, along­side male coun­ter­points from Joel Tudor to Alex Knost and Rob Machado. These were not cook­iecut­ter films with tra­di­tional mod­els of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, they brought to the screen an al­ter­na­tive wave-rid­ing mind­set, shining a light on the cre­ativ­ity that ex­ists within surfing, em­brac­ing a broad spec­trum of board shapes, surfers, lo­cales and styles, and re­flect­ing the chang­ing land­scape of the line up. This in­clu­sive, en­sem­ble spirit has been em­braced by film­mak­ers such as Nathan Old­field.

While en­sem­ble surf movies be­gan to level the playing field, films like Dear & Yon­der (2009), di­rected by Tif­fany Campbell and An­dria Lessler, reset the stage. This brought to­gether a dy­namic all-women cast of all ages, crafts and styles in­clud­ing Linda Benson, Stephanie Gilmore, LeeAnn Cur­ren, Liz Clarke and Kas­sia Meador, to surf, shape, ride, rip and ul­ti­mately tra­verse per­ceived bound­aries.

Slip­stream­ing in its wake, the 2010 doc­u­men­tary First Love fol­lowed three young fe­male surfers on their jour­ney to mak­ing their pas­sion their ca­reer. The movie ush­ered in a new wave of fe­male talent be­hind and in front of the lens, in­clud­ing cur­rent WCT surfer Nikki van Dijk and multi award-win­ning film­mak­ing team Clare Plueck­hahn and Fran Der­ham.

When ‘Leave a Mes­sage’ was re­leased in 2011, everyone was ready for it. Filmed over two years, fea­tur­ing the gen­er­a­tion’s most rad­i­cal fe­male per­for­mance surfers from Carissa Moore to Lakey Peter­son and Laura En­ever in the very best waves, and set to a kick ass sound track

Sto­ries of fe­male surfers and com­mu­ni­ties are be­ing told through ground­break­ing doc­u­men­taries that chal­lenge the sta­tus quo and con­front

gen­der pol­i­tics.

fea­tur­ing Paramore to Bloc Party with­out a ukulele strain in earshot, this genre-break­ing ‘parts’ movie el­e­vated fe­male surfing to new lev­els.

In three short years these three films rewrote the script on what it means to be a fe­male surfer, re­veal­ing that there are mul­ti­ple ways of be­ing and mul­ti­ple ways of seeing.

The rule­book had been torn up.

It’s into this brave new world in 2011 that we founded the Lon­don Surf / Film Fes­ti­val and the last decade has seen a paradigm shift in surf film­mak­ing and the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women on both sides of the cam­era. A greater num­ber and per­cent­age of films com­ing to the fore fea­ture women as a mat­ter of course, re­flect­ing the changes in our line-ups glob­ally and the pro­gres­sion of women’s surfing. With clips drop­ping all the time of Carissa pulling air re­verses or Steph find­ing new lines on a twin­nie, film­mak­ers can’t jus­tify only fea­tur­ing men – and why would they? The WSL crew, Carissa, Steph, Lakey and Courtney, rip, and would be the apex surfer in any line up; the likes of Leah Daw­son and Kas­sia Meador are su­per stylists; LeeAnn Cur­ren and Easkey Brit­ton are ac­claimed ad­ven­tur­ers; and big wave charg­ers like Keala Ken­nelly and Paige Alms are lead­ing the push, so it’s lit­tle won­der that it’s these women who fea­ture in the films we screen, or that it’s their sto­ries we want to hear.

Sto­ries of fe­male surfers and com­mu­ni­ties are be­ing told through ground­break­ing doc­u­men­taries that chal­lenge the sta­tus quo and con­front gen­der pol­i­tics. Award-win­ning films like Into The Sea (Dir. Mar­ion Poizeau), ex­plor­ing women surfing in Iran, Surf Girls Ja­maica (Dir, Lucy Jane and Joya Ber­row), un­cov­er­ing surfing as a tool for so­cial change, Beyond The Sur­face (Dir. Crys­tal Thorn­burg Homcy), fea­tur­ing In­dia’s first fe­male surfer, and A Land Shaped by Women (Ann-Flore Marxer & Aline Bock) look­ing at the role of women in Ice­landic so­ci­ety.

Surf film­mak­ing isn’t just about big cam­eras; it’s about big ideas. It feels as though there has been a shift to­wards a range of films that bet­ter rep­re­sent the di­ver­sity of our line-ups – a more demo­cratic and bal­anced artis­tic out­put. When women be­come more im­mersed in the process, more in­volved in pro­duc­tion – as film­mak­ers, di­rec­tors, writ­ers, pro­duc­ers and the talent – that is where the real changes oc­cur. In 2018, close to half of the in­ter­na­tional and British films we pre­miered featured women either on cam­era or as in­te­gral parts of the pro­duc­tion team, en­joyed by an au­di­ence that is grow­ing close to gen­der par­tial­ity be­tween male and fe­male. I find my­self won­der­ing, hop­ing: ‘Are we get­ting to a point where we’re no longer mak­ing men’s surf films or women’s surf films – a point where we’re simply mak­ing surf films? Are we nearly there yet?’

EOS, starring Kas­sia Meader

Stephanie Gilmore

The girls at the LSFF in­clud­ing Laura En­ever, Stephanie Gilmore and Demi Tay­lor right.

A Land Shaped By Woman.

Trou­ble, the Lisa An­der­son doc­u­men­tary, is a must see.

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