Inside San Sebastian Surfilm Festibal
Making real money in the surfing hustle is a tall order. The corporate guys do it. The top competitive surfers do it. The top PR guys do it. And the magazine editors pay their bills. Everyone else is fighting over scraps. But money isn’t the point, the perks are. Even in my strange little corner of the surfing world these perks sometimes filter down – tourism boards occasionally give me free accommodation, my name gets put on the list for certain parties, and people let me ride demo boards when I’m visiting, to name a few. It aint surf trips to Indo, but it aint bad either. Surfers still like to take care of their own. And two weeks ago, I found myself boarding a plane for the second time in two years to Spain to judge San Sebastian’s annual surfing film festival, Surfilm Festibal. I spent last week averaging six hours of surf films a day – roughly twice that number of free beers, and half that for hours of sleep. The days were warm and the nights were long. The waves were decent too.
I would not recommend watching every film at a surf film festival unless you’re getting your accommodation comped. But doing so at a film festival that is as interesting and as eccentric as San Sebastian’s offers something that you can’t get from any magazine or web site: a panoramic view of the current state of surf culture: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The festival this year was both greater and smaller than years before – meaning that the state of the Spanish economy and the wider surf industry has caused sponsorship cuts, less free goods, and lower budget films. Needless to say, no one was sending me lavish bribes to drop an award on them. However the loosening of the invisible hand of commerce has given rise to a gritty, hungry, and innovative group of mostly self-financed filmmakers who sit well outside the orbits of the artistic black holes that are the major surfing companies. They are refreshing a discipline that had, in recent years, grown tired, cliché-ridden, and bloated under the weight of its own, pseudo-counterculture, beatnik-wannabe, acoustic-guitar-picking pretense. This year’s movies were a breath of fresh air – accompanied by a swift backhand to the face.
Let’s get the complaints out of the way first. There are certain asinine clichés that surface in surf flicks like a cockroach in otherwise decent food. If they appeared in any of the films that I saw, I was able to safely and confidently walk out of the theatre. First and foremost: the gratuitous ass shot. You know, there’s a girl on the beach in a tiny bikini and some dude who is old enough to be her dad zooms in on it with his digital camera. You wouldn’t accept this type of behavior from a dirty old man if you were on the beach, so why would you accept it when you are actually watching the dirty old man’s film? It’s not interesting; it’s not sexy, and when the film is showing in a theatre full of women, it just makes said filmmakers seem like pieces of shit. If I want soft porn, I’ll hit up Cinemax.
While on the topic of shit, let’s talk about the taste of Red Bull. Any movie that shows some pro conspicuously swigging from a Taurine grenade before the sun has gone down is lying to you. In fact, if they show a pro drinking the stuff at all without first adding a blast of vodka, they are lying to you. I’ve decided to turn off any movie with product placement, because life is too short to spend it watching advertorials. That said, I do, however, still enjoy the odd Red Bull vodka.
Life is also too short to spend it behind sunglasses. Unfortunately, most pros won’t take them off during interviews. This is of course, a contractual obligation which ensures that a) one of three logos appear (hat, t-shirt, sunglasses) and b) the pro in question looks like an incorrigible son of a bitch. They should just cut the crap and start branding sponsor names on their foreheads.
With that out of the way, let’s get to what’s right, because there is a lot of it. First and foremost: Jack McCoy’s magnum opus of aloha, A Deeper Shade of Blue. McCoy is not one of the fresh faces I mentioned earlier, but needs to be highlighted because he has created something that should be compulsory viewing for all surfers. It is a comprehensive summary of most of the important points in our shared history and a love note to Hawaiian culture – impressively epic, and touchingly intimate. The cinematography is vintage McCoy, and if you pay attention, it is filled with facts you should probably already know, but are too embarrassed to ask. I would give this film to anyone who wants to know where surfing came from and how it has progressed to what we know today.
The jaw-dropping surprise of the festival was a homegrown effort from a professional videographer living so far off the surfing map that many surfers would not be able to point to his country if you paid them. I’m referring to Aleksi Raij of Finland. His film, Finnsurf, is the rarest of creations: a cold water surf flick that manages to avoid all of the typical clichés about “living the dream” and surfing waves that get “as good as anywhere else in the world” that typically sink movies in the genre. Instead, he uses interviews with five Finnish surfers to explore themes of social alienation, the strange and intense loneliness of feeling out of place in your own country, and the nature of “stoke.” It is emotionally affecting in ways that few movies talking about surfing ever manage.
Another movie that danced out of nowhere and (mostly) sidestepped clichés was the debut of two Argentine brothers by the name of Julián and Joaquín Azulay called Gauchos Del Mar. It follows a yearlong trip from California to Buenos Aires by truck. With simple commentary, infinitely likeable protagonists, great waves and a grab bag of trials and tribulations, they manage to create a travel flick that makes you feel like you are riding shotgun. Vicarious journeys don’t get much more visceral, or more enjoyable than this, and given the low budget and proliferation of GoPro, it’s quite an accomplishment. The brothers Azulay are good, but not great surfers which makes watching the surf sequences an unexpected treat simply because they are infinitely easier to relate to. Scenes like picking up trash on the beach with a group of pudgy ex-pats fall flat, but Julián and Joaquín are charming enough filmmakers that the film maintains momentum.