I love any film about surfing that is different - that challenge the stereotypes and mainstream representations of what surfing is, what is looks like and who does it. I like these films because they call into question who gets to tell the stories of surfing. For so long, it's been those who are best at it, those for whom surfing is life, rather than part of life, those who are the most self-interested, those who see their place in history as significant, those who are trying to make money from it. This is all fine, but it means that our surfing stories have been mostly high performance, glamorous, spectacular, and let's face it, hyper-masculine. Again, that's cool, but it's given us a pretty limited representation of the majority of surfing experiences.
So when I saw this surf film, Away, come up on my social media feed this morning, I was pretty thrilled.
Away, by Elisa Bates is a short film about three women who surf in New York - Katarina Del Mar, Jee Mee Kim and Mary Leonard. These women talk about their passion and drive for surfing, how they even came to surfing, and how the idea of surfing in a city like New York - to be able to access nature and wildness in a place that is so abundantly human and cultural - is pretty cool. Such stories are so interesting to me. As someone who grew up living next door to a white-sand, warm water beach, being in the ocean seems so fundamental. The only weird thing was that I didn't surf until so much later in my life. My not surfing is almost the negative of their relationships to surfing - it was the culture and the 1980s and 90s craziness that kept me disinterested. Getting to the sea was always easy for me - basically I walked out my back gate and then another 200 metres and I was there.
But, as I've discovered in my own years of city living, getting to the coast when you are constrained by traffic, work commitments, relationships, and distance is a whole other story. I've come to admire and understand the dedication and organisation that goes into making surfing a regular part of your life. And that's in Australia. In this film I see the added complication of icy, snow-filled winter days - negotiating an ice-covered footpath in booties - something I've never had to consider! The image of Jee Mee Kim inching her way across the ice on her feet, and on her bum, will stay with me for some time yet.
These things interrupt the possibility that you could even consider surfing. Like I said, I didn't consider it til so much later in my life because the blokey aggressive culture itself kept me from imagining surfing as a possibility. But for the surfers in this film, there is so much more than that, so that they have ended up committed to surfing is amazing to me. For Katrina Del Mar, after making a fictional film about girl surf gangs, she got interested and came to grow into her name. Jee Mee Kim explains that surfing became so important to her, so frustratingly constant in her mind, that she "went to therapy because of surfing". Mary Leonard, had to put up with her mother trying to guilt her about surfing when she should be with her kids, finally coming to understand that "I get it. Surfing is like your golf", using her previous acceptance of another male-dominated form of time-out to make sense of her daughter's right to independence.
That the key surfers in Away are women seems incidental to this film actually. I mean, it feels like a film about surfers in New York not women surfers in New York. The way a film about male surfers in New York would never be positioned as about male surfers. I hope that makes sense? I'm so often accused of applying a gendered analysis to everything (a fair accusation) that I always want to point out when something goes beyond gender to tell a bigger tale. This tale is about surfing beyond the high gloss, super cool, magazine-worthy images we're so used to seeing, to dig down into what it is we do and love, and what is involved in that at an everyday, mundane level - the drive to the beach, the frustration of learning, the frustration of work, the commitment to family - all of which frames the moments we spend in the sea, catching waves.