Riding Giants (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

True believers never lost their sense of wonder.

Riding Giants

Director: Stacy Peralta
Cast: Laird Hamilton, Greg Noll, Jeff Clark, Darrick Doerner, Dave Kalama, Brian L. Kealana, Titus Kinimaka
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-07-09 (Limited release)

Following the success of Dogtown and Z Boys, Stacy Peralta has returned to the lyrical energies of athletes on their boards, this time with stupendous wave action. Riding Giants traces a general and enthuastic history of surfing, with special attention to differences among generations, locations, and larger than life personalities. Not unlike last year's Step Into Liquid (Dana Brown's enthusiastic update on his dad's Endless Summer), Peralta's movie uses archival footage, interviews, photos, and animation to conjure an exultant tale of achievement, invention, and individualism.

Following a brief animated history, whimsically called "1,000 Years of Surfing in Two Minutes or Less" (that notes the influence on early Hawaiian he'e nalu by James Cook, Christian missionaries, and Duke Kahanamoku), the film takes up themes from Dogboys, which extolled skateboarding as a working class kids' rebellion in Southern California. Riding Giants can't really make the same class claims, as it was most often kids of some means who could imagine taking "endless summers."

Focused on surfers' efforts to seek out ever-new challenges, to redefine freedom and feel rebellious, the film venerates their countercultural peace-loving as much as their posturing, their spirituality and their free spiritedness. Many of these guys (and they are overwhelmingly guys) might be described as "beach bums," and if they resented the label, they were also eager to live out the stereotype, crashing ten to a beach shack, drinking beer and paying ukuleles, getting by on the fish they could catch and papaya they might gather.

Organized sort of by location and sort of by personality, Riding Giants' first section is devoted primarily to Greg "The Bull" Noll, hard-partying conqueror of the 20-foot waves in Waimea Bay. Devoted ("Waimea was my gal, man"), he looks back now on those days with affection, recalling his decision to make surfing not just his insurgent avocation, but his livelihood, as the designer and seller of excellent surfboards. Surfing for eight hours a day, Noll impressed serious fans as well as casual spectators with his prodigious talent and sheer nerve. In 1969, at 32, he made history at Makaha, surfing a six-stories high wave that no one thought could be surfed. The fact that no footage of this ride exists only adds to its legend, and it also underlines the surfers' general inclination to shoot everything -- this movie pulls together all kinds of spectacular images, produced by those who were there.

Surfing's seeming purity -- documented or not -- was spoiled by the incursion of Gidget (1959) and other pop phenomena that suggested all the cute guys and gals listened to Dick Dale at the beach and rode rear-projection waves without mussing their hair-dos. But true believers never lost their sense of wonder. This perspective is bolstered by incredible footage of waves, tubes, and skies -- the waves are actually awesome. Riding Giants also marshals a selection of observers to support its central thesis, that surfing is more a religion, or a way of life, than a sport per se. John Milius (who co-wrote Apocalypse Now [1979] and is here credited as the director of a surfer film) appears to underline the culture's resistance to "mainstream values." Or, as surfer Ricky Grigg puts it, "The endorphins are just bursting out of your brain!"

This ideal is variously embodied, by Jeff Clark, whose domain, the gargantuan waves of Mavericks in Half Moon Bay, north of San Francisco, was his alone for some 15 years, as no one believed his reports of stunning surf action. And Laird Hamilton, one of the originators of tow-in surfing, a three-man activity that allows surfers to reach even bigger waves, 60 or 70 feet in height. As Peralta puts it in imposing voiceover, Hamilton's concept "revised the rules of engagement."

While these triumphs are rousing, the film includes more difficult, though hardly unexpected, given the chances these athletes take as a matter of course, are sadder stories, including one surfer who recovered from an injury that left him feeling "I was like a seagull filled with oil, just floating," and the surprising and tragic death of Mark Foo, at Maverick's in 1994. He's shown walking with surfboard en route to his last ride several times, in slow motion, to denote his standing or perhaps encourage your contemplation.

The film is disposed toward these sorts of overkill methods -- big music, grand descriptions by the subjects who imagine their words preserved on film, forever. At the same time, such somber moments are more than offset by Riding Giants' proclivity for celebration, adulation, and occasional delirium. Surfing remains a commitment and a cause, a means to extend one's own limits. Most emphatically, surfing is fun, a means to a very visceral kind of enlightenment. While this philosophy can gesture toward political innovation, even revolution, it can also look narcissistic.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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