There’s a particularly scary combination of drugs found in surf line-ups everywhere. It’s not cooked in a lab or grown in some distant jungle, it comes straight from the little pharmacy counter of our brains—the dreaded adrenaline/testosterone speedball. It’s that kind of drug: you see someone on it, you roll up the windows, cross the street, or paddle down the point. Don’t get me wrong, it has a time and a place, but the aggression that fuels a late drop at Teahupo’o or Mavericks doesn’t always work out so well on a crowded chest-high morning in town. Think of the last time you were out when someone had a screaming tantrum, or worse, a full-on brawl because of some slight, imagined or real—it sinks the entire line-up. Even if you’re not directly involved, it puts that downbeat spin on the rest of your day.
We’re wired for competition—it’s coded into our meat—and there are unicorns and golden rainbows at the break where no one ever hassles for waves. But, in contrast to that fight you just thought of, take a second now and think about the last time someone called you into a set wave that they were in position for, or that fast little inside peak that was yours but you called some other guy or girl into. In the same way the crazy drop-in fight can spin your whole day down, that moment of aloha can light up your brain like you just caught the wave of the week.
Because the truth is, as much as we’re wired for competition, we’re just as wired for cooperation. Yes, outrunning the guy next to you might have guaranteed the early days of our survival as a species, but chasing down the big animals and lifting that giant log together was just as important and, ultimately, a lot more enjoyable. Working together—helping each other out, being part of a group—starts a cascade of the good drugs from the medicine cabinet of our basal ganglia: dopamine, serotonin. If adrenaline and testosterone are the equivalent of drugs that send you out to break some car windows to get more, dopamine and serotonin are drugs that haven’t been invented outside the brain—ones that would make you buy your neighbor a new car, then make her turn around and buy one for you.
It’s easier and easier these days to withdraw from being part of a community. We each drive our own empty cars everywhere, order everything online and recline in front of our sixty-inch home theaters, and when we do end up in the same place as a few others, we sit, oblivious, plugged into the tiny personal infinities of our smartphones. In the olden days, the only way people could see a surf movie was when the filmmaker rented out a local theater. Now, with streaming access everywhere, we can watch them in the bathtub or on the bus. So why are surf film festivals growing so fast? The list includes New York City, San Diego, Mill Valley, Honolulu, San Sebastián, Spain; and maybe the oddest: London, England, hours from the nearest surfable wave. We like to think it’s that desire to connect, to fight against the forces of isolation. We started the Santa Cruz Surf Film Festival after experiencing the amazing and immediate community that the New York Surf Film Festival managed to create in what has to be one of the most diverse surf communities anywhere.
Today’s cameras and editing software make it easy for anyone to shoot a surf film. There’s more to watch than ever—hours and hours of footage. It’s a testament to the creativity and intelligence of surfers in general that there are so many great, thoughtful, truly entertaining films being made. You don’t need to be a surfer to enjoy the best of the surf films being shot now. The 19 films we chose for the Santa Cruz festival all feature amazing stories in addition to great surfing—including epic journeys through Europe (The Old, the Young and the Sea), Patagonia (Tierra de Patagones), India (Beyond the Surface) and Northern Canada (The Fortune Wild); universal tales of struggle and triumph in the lives of groundbreaking young surfers Oney Anwar (Chasing the Dream) and Lakey Peterson (Zero to One Hundred); and an award-winning exploration of the never-before-told-story of gay surfers’ quest for equality on the professional circuit and in everyday line-ups around the world (OUT in the Line-up)—the sorts of movies that rev up the basal ganglia.
Because surf films literally do fire up our brains. Neuroscientists have observed a cool phenomenon: when we perform some particular action, like ride a wave, a specific cluster of neurons fires, and when we just watch someone else riding a wave, it causes a smaller subset of those exact same neurons to fire. They call them “mirror neurons,” and any surfer who has mind-surfed a wave online, or from the beach, can confirm that— whatever they call them—watching waves and other surfers on them makes your brain pop up and race down the line like it was out there. It extends to emotional reactions as well—you watch someone react to something with disgust or joy and your brain cooks up the same experience. The experts even think mirror neurons may help us with everything from interpreting other people’s intentions to feeling empathy. True or not, just put a bunch of surfers in a dark theater together watching some amazing trip to a coast full of waves—particularly when the people on that trip are spreading aloha rather than snaking and stuffing each other—and everyone will walk out sharing a healthy dose of those wave-sharing brain chemicals. Maybe by pulling us all into the big room together to shout, laugh and mind-surf together, surf film festivals might even cause a few more of those aloha days out in the water. It’s worth trying.
For more information on the Santa Cruz Surf Film Festival, visit www.scsff.com.