Judge Katie Herrell wore a helmet-cam while writing this review.
"…conquer the last untouched waves."
An unattainable goal from its conception? Surely, no wave is ever really ridden twice. Unless, of course, your floppy-haired friend drops in on you. And that's the rhythm of this movie: the "dudes" contrasted with the philanthropists, the beer swillers contrasted with the environmentalists, the awesome land shots coupled with distant surf footage.
The surf movie is a concept that has been touched—manhandled really—ad nauseam. But there's still, frequently, an effort by filmmakers and a hope from viewers that a new perspective, or simply a new "wave," will be captured on film. And while this film disappoints with the actual waves, it delivers a more well-rounded perspective of the surfer come naturalist come lover of brothers than other surf porn flicks.
Facts of the Case
"7 of the world's top surfers" travel to Indonesia in search of some uncrowded wave territory—surfers who have the sponsors and the tans and the awards to stay in sunny California and ride some big waves before heading to the bar. But these guys have the adventure bug and the bigger-is-better bug and the go-where-no-surfer-has-gone-before bug and off they go to Indonesia to brave less-than-optimal conditions, language barriers, warm and fizzy sodas, and the possibility that all their efforts will be in vain.
The footage starts out promising. The opening sequence appears to use a hand-held camera. As several of the men are showcased from behind a backlighting effect (likely a natural effect of the sun's positioning) gives the men shadowy silhouettes. This shadow, coupled with the men's positioning in some tall grasses (plus the from behind, "don't go in the basement" camera positioning), creates the illusion that you aren't watching a surfing movie but a horror movie and that these frolicking surfers are about to be eviscerated. Later the scene will be repeated, this time in sequence with the storyline, and the same shot becomes more romantic and idealistic as you realize that the men seem to have found their "untouched" spot.
But soon after this opening sequence, the gratuitous surf shots begin in earnest. While awesome surf footage is the hallmark of any surf film, this footage seems to be spliced in, rather poorly. I never have the feeling that the footage isn't real, or that the surfers are using body doubles—a la Blue Crush—but the footage seems distant and I have no doubt that the shots aren't in real time. Meaning, after the men have wandered or boated to a spot it feels like the corresponding surf footage is not necessarily of the ensuing hours in the waves but a jumble of surf shots from throughout their trip.
Perhaps this is the result of the extreme difficulty of shooting surfers—especially on a budget. No doubt. But the unfocused, far away shots are further dragged down by a faulty soundtrack that is a heightened version of banging pots and pans. Maybe it's "authentic" Indonesian music, but it isn't worthy of accommodating the men's awesome moves. And even if the quality of the footage is suspect—and maybe it's simply the sequential quantity of the quality of the footage that is the problem—the actual surfing prowess of the movie's subjects is worthy of a few sponsors.
Thankfully on land the footing is dynamite and the dialogue, while not ballad worthy, is honest and earnest. The men poke from village to village and from surf spot to surf spot, even uncovering the sale of turtle eggs that is leading to the turtles' position on the endangered species list. The surfers grapple with a severe rain storm and several gnarly injuries, all with a reality TV essence (even though there's a screenplay credit). The surfers interact with the locals and wax poetic about the Indonesian people's poverty but they also marvel at their (the locals') happiness.
Yes, there's plenty of beer drinking and quotable lines such as "We suffer. We starve. No cold drinks" or "I'm sure we missed out on potential perfection" that give credence to surfer stereotypes, but the fact that one of the men is able to converse with the Indonesian people in their own language is a testament to a more well-rounded and intellectual surfer lifestyle.
Actually this film could have benefitted from a less edited finished project. The men's musing and antics are ample material for a 76-minute film, but when scenes like the initial one are repeated the entire timeline of the movie comes into question. At one point the men are shown investigating a dusty, crusty building and it only becomes obvious from the deleted scenes that this was a hotel they stayed at on their first night. In another deleted scene one of the men, a raw foods vegan, details all the fresh fruits and nuts he ate during the trip, but the actual film showcases lots of Ramen and makes a big deal of the times the surfers ate "real" food like a coconut or a still feathered chicken.
There are a few shots of riding the waves that use a helmet cam, and I wish this technique had been given a little more screen time. The cameraman looks ridiculous hoofing it out to the waves with this unwieldy camera strapped to his head but the shots are so real they're stomach churning. There is something about droplets of water skating across a camera lens that offers a sense of authenticity to the viewer.
It's hard to imagine how surfing footage is shot without a helmet cam, and I wish this element of their trip and the filmmaking process in general had been explored a bit in the movie. The Special Features includes a photo gallery, and this is a great edition if you're the raw foods vegan's barreling grandma and you're sitting in his living room poring over the photos, but on screen the effect of the photograph medium is lost. I would have loved a visual tutorial of the helmet cam.
The sound quality of this film—aside from the music—is actually very good. And that's amazing considering they move from boat to land to foreign language to surfer speak. As with a helmet cam tutorial, it would have been interesting if the film had addressed the film luggage they toted along on the trip. This was a documentary, in sorts, about surfing in Indonesia and the men spend a lot of time talking about their conditions and their surroundings without addressing the elephant in the room, their film crew who likely weren't sleeping with their expensive cameras on the roof of a boat like the rest of the guys.
But maybe it feels like the men should share everything about their movie because of the intimate, and random, nature of many of the scenes. Certainly, I wouldn't expect Michael Moore to pause and introduce his lead grip—but it'd be kinda nice.
For actual surf footage there are better films than The Forgotten Coast. Some talk about history of surfing or focus on the playboy lifestyle or just stick to the waves and showcase some sick footage. While this film is a bit more erratic in its focus and the quality of its shots, it's also a bit more realistic and thus endearing. And it addresses some important issues—for your consideration, if not in-depth. Print media coverage of surfing usually waffles between its danger and its sex appeal, or the rudeness of it all, but this film looks a bit more at the roughness of life in another part of the country and how something the locals take for granted—like miles of coast—the hungry surfer will travel miles in search of.
Not guilty. Riding the last untouched waves, just can't be done. But it doesn't mean looking is in vain.
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