There is unavoidable violence when the surf gets extra-large. Big waves break with an uncaring brutality, and we humans are not made to be caught in the middle. The stakes are high and decidedly non-negotiable when the lip of a 40-foot behemoth is avalanching on top of you. Indeed, no matter your skill set, to ride massive surf is to put yourself directly in harm’s way. It is an athletic transaction that simply does not happen without a certain amount of fear for all parties involved. More to the point, for the wave riders who seek out these saltwater skyscrapers, fear becomes a portal to a better way of living.
“When you watch these men and women surf these freaking gnarly waves, you can’t help but be fascinated,” says filmmaker Paul Taublieb. “I mean, why do they do this? Why do they paddle out? Why do they choose to leave the safety of shore?” In his new feature-length film, Ground Swell: The Other Side of Fear, Taublieb seeks answers to these questions from some of the brightest stars in the big-wave universe. The movie, which serves as the Saturday-night headliner for the upcoming Santa Barbara Surf Film Festival, follows folks such as Kai Lenny, Bianca Valenti, Matt Bromley, and Nic von Rupp as they chase the biggest waves the world has to offer during the 2021-22 season. From outer reefs in Maui and the cold coast of California’s Half Moon Bay to the storied shores of Portugal’s Nazaré, the surf footage sparkles as it puts a pit in your stomach. It is a borderline primal experience as you watch the action unfold, especially when seen on the big screen. You will cheer and tremble and cheer again.
However, the real magic of Taublieb’s filmmaking is the way he draws out deeply human and universally accessible themes from niche corners of the sporting landscape. Much like he did with his award-winning film Unchained: The Untold Story of Freestyle Motocross and the critically acclaimed Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau, Taublieb’s cinematic storytelling takes a topic that many are familiar with and casts it in a new, thought-provoking light that somehow manages to entertain both the core fan and the neophyte viewer equally. Setting the high-gloss surf pornography aside, the real richness of Ground Swell comes from the insightful interviews with the athletes and the way the topic of fear is fleshed out both visually and intellectually.
For too long, surfers have seldom been allowed to show themselves on the big screen beyond the pigeon hole of Sean Penn’s character Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but Ground Swell purposely deviates from this tired trope and offers glimpses into the cerebral leanings of many big-wave surfers. For all their oceanic bravado, they are also a thoughtful bunch. It cannot be overstated how much knowledge, planning, and preparation goes into serious big-wave riding. Listening to these deeply committed professionals talk about their personal relationships with fear invites us all to reconsider our own relations with the emotion.
You don’t have to be a big-wave aficionado, or even a surfer, to come away from Ground Swell feeling more connected to your own human experience and more inspired to push past your own perceived limits in life. As an added bonus, former ’Cito rat turned international movie star Josh Brolin narrates the whole thing with his impossibly attractive voice.
Other highlights from this year’s Santa Barbara Surf Film Festival include a short-film program featuring work from heavyweights such as Morgan Maassen and Sean Tully; a Conner Coffin biopic directed by Keith Malloy; the latest film from Josh Pomer; a local heavy skate compilation by Eric Hatch; and a Friday-night screening of Bill Delaney’s 1977 classic, Free Ride. And, for this author’s money, the real gem of the weekend is the North American premiere of Andrew Kidman’s latest film, Untitled (“Big Sky Limited”). The film, which was five years in the making, is a brilliant and aesthetic exploration of the multi-generational craft of surfboard building, featuring some of the most interesting minds in the game, such as George Greenough, Dave Parmenter, Maurice Cole, and Simon Anderson.
The 2023 Santa Barbara Surf Film Festival runs June 9-10 at the Lobero Theatre. For more info or to purchase tickets, go to SantaBarbaraSurfFilmFestival.com.