Tim Baker | The London Surf Film Festival.
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The London Surf Film Festival.

The London Surf Film Festival.

I enjoy just saying that. It seems such an unlikely notion. A surf film festival. In London.

But it is real and I know because I was there. Now, of course, the only tube you are going to score in London is the bustling underground train system but somehow that doesn’t seem to dampen the positively contagious air of surf stoke that permeates this event. Much of that is due to the charming couple, Demi and Chris, who run the  festival – keen, charismatic, Cornish surfers who sweep all before them with their enthusiasm to stage pull this thing off in the face of its impractical lunacy.

The thing is, there are surfers in London, stranded by jobs or family or circumstance, and they have to travel for hours to surf generally pretty average surf in freezing water, so they already rate as some of the most dedicated wave riders on the planet. And, of course, when you can’t actually go for a surf whenever you feel like it, just traipse out the door and drive down the beach at the hint of an offshore or the rumble of a swell, the next best thing is a surf movie.

And so 600 or so souls alight at the Stepney Green tube station and cram into the stately Genesis Cinema in East London, each night for three consecutive nights and hoot and cheer and clap and swill beer and brainstorm their next run down the coast or the possibility of a quick mission to France.

I was there because a little surf history doco I’d worked on for Red Bull Media House, with UK-based South African-born filmmaker Peter Hamblin, was on the bill. The Ripple Effect was the title we gave to the four-part series of short documentaries on influential figures in surfing’s rich history, edited in Hamblin’s trademark, rapid fire, slapstick style. In London they screened the Cooly Kids episode, about how two generations of talented Coolangatta surfers, 30 years apart, had taken the surfing world by storm. The Londoners seemed to love it and we gave a little Q and A chat afterwards, only six hours after I stepped off a 24-hour flight from Queensland. I think I made sense just long enough to pull it off before collapsing into delirium.

The next day I took part in a writer’s forum with the lovely Lauren Davies, who writes surf-inspired books and films, and charming Welsh boyo Tom Anderson who’s penned some fine surf travel tales and the best surf noir detective novel to come out of Wales since … well, ever really. And a nice man from Magic Seaweed Ed Temperely, who really can sign his name Ed because he is both an editor and an actual Edward. We all talked about how we got into this surf writing game and how we approach our various forms of story-telling, with straight faces as if there was any kind of viable career in it, while well-to-do London stockbrokers who miss the beach with an unbearable aching melancholy considered throwing in their lucrative careers.

I had an excellent time, despite being only semi-conscious most of the weekend, and slightly drunk for much of the rest of the time, and wide awake in the middle of the night despite being delirious with sleep deprivation the rest of the time. Highlights for me included the excellent Out In The Lineup, a brave and compelling exploration of the lives of gay surfers in a surf culture that seems determined to pretend they don’t exist. It won best documentary at the festival and its director Ian Thomson was deservedly chuffed. I was left pondering why the Association of Surfing Professionals had found it so difficult to grant Ian an interview for his film, why ASP media man Dave Prodan stood him up or failed to return phone calls numerous times, then finally agreed to an interview, then sent Ian a lawyer’s letter saying they weren’t allowed the use the interview he’d given them. Just extraordinary.

Would it really kill the ASP to admit the likelihood that among their hundreds of members the statistical probability is that some of them might be gay and deserve to be able to pursue their careers in a supportive environment that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation? No it would not. Frankly, I think if some of the ailing old surf companies busted out and sponsored the world’s first openly gay pro surfer it might do their flagging fortunes the world of good and convince a younger generation (who surveys show are overwhelmingly in favour of gay rights and marriage equality) that Big Surf is not just run by staid old, white, straight men who despise poofters.

Surf culture’s just getting interesting I reckon and the thing that strikes me most strongly about the rich and diverse offerings to be found at the booming surf film festival circuit – from Hawaii to San Sebastian, California to Sao Paulo – is the almost complete absence of any surf brand presence. These are genuine, heart-felt documentaries of real people’s surfing lives, made on a shoestring but with boundless conviction and passion, surfers claiming back their culture from the marketeers.

The other thing that struck me is that story-telling appears to be making something of a (long overdue) comeback, that we have become so assailed with ever more spectacular surf imagery, so jaded by mindboggling mutant slabs and outrageous airs, the endless eye candy of high performance surf porn, that we are finally ready for a narrative journey, character exploration, context, to be picked up and swept along by a riveting tale well-told.

The theme of this year’s festival was, fittingly, narrative. And I’m proud to say our little surf doco on the Cooly Kids won the Spirit of the Festival Award for best capturing that theme. One thing surfing has in abundance is great stories. Another is wonderful characters. We’ve been squandering them for too long. Here’s hoping storytelling is back to stay.

Footnote: The overall winner of the festival was Tierra de Patagones which, although I didn’t catch it at the festival, looks stunning based on the trailer.

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