Judge William Lee wrote this review for locals only.
"The thing that makes Ireland different from a lot of countries, when they get good surf, it may be a C or B. When we get good surf in Ireland, it's an A-plus."—Richard Fitzgerald
There have been many surfing documentaries that try to get inside the heads of surfers. The rush of catching a big wave is likened to a spiritual high and the requisite slow motion cinematography of surfers shooting through tunnels of water can certainly look like a miraculous feat. Those standard elements are present in this film but what makes Waveriders different from the others is its attention to history.
First-time feature documentary director Joel Conroy builds his film around establishing the unlikely Irish roots of the sport. Tracing the origins of the sport to Ireland through ancestry is the crux of the argument and the film does assemble many contemporary surf pros with Irish blood. Among them is superstar Kelly Slater, who makes a brief appearance in the film and indulges the filmmakers on a trip to what he calls a "cold paradise." Some of the other participants sitting for interviews and showing their skills on the water are Richard Fitzgerald, Gabe Davies and the Malloy Brothers.
Waveriders is most interesting when it focuses on the distant past. It delivers a fascinating history lesson for those who have only an armchair appreciation of surfing. The strongest element of the film concerns George Freeth, of Irish and Hawaiian ancestry, who became a sensation in the early 1900s. He is credited as the man who popularized surfing, pioneered ocean lifeguarding and introduced water polo to California. There was also the time he single-handedly saved six Japanese fishermen from a capsized boat in stormy seas—an act that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Historian Arthur Verge tells most of this information with much enthusiasm. If Freeth's accomplishments sound exaggerated, they're still easy to accept because that's what you expect to hear of legends.
Irish-American Kevin Naughton also provides a useful historical perspective to the sport. In the 1960s, he hit the road looking for new surf destinations and wrote about his adventures for Surfer magazine. His articles popularized the "surf safari" lifestyle. The philosophy born out of his experience is a big factor in the development of surfing as a global destination sport as enthusiasts continue to seek out new spots with primo waves.
The coast of Ireland is now a draw for expert surfers looking to push their abilities. From what we see in this film, the waves are typically fierce. The cold Atlantic waters are driven by winds into jagged rocks and steep cliffs. There are plenty of jaw-dropping moments as these surfers display their skills on giant swells. The water looks violent and that's what makes these moments so thrilling even if they're not the most photogenic seas. Surfing fans looking for some amazing footage will not be disappointed.
We received a preview disc for review so the technical specifications on the final retail product may differ. The image on this DVD is respectable but less glossy than other surfing movies. Part of the reason is because the weather off Ireland is quite different from the golden hues of California's shoreline. Skies are almost always overcast in the surfing footage featured here so the overall brightness and color levels are subdued. There are lots of slow motion angles of breathtaking surfing action but they lack the crystal clear sharpness that typifies the magazine cover quality of this brand of sports cinematography. The archival film footage and photographs that support the historical side of the film look aged and worn but they're useful. There is a visual effect applied to the old and new footage—color shifting and overexposed frames, like a hand-cranked movie camera at the end of a roll of film—that I suspect is intended to give the film a feeling of rawness but it's distracting and unnecessary. The stereo audio is good passable. Sometimes the voice-over narration by Cillian Murphy (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) is hard to make out clearly but the interviews are fine.
Waveriders is a surfing documentary that treads a little further from the usual shores but the historical aspect and the fresh locales make it a worthwhile ride. The footage isn't the prettiest, but it's still stunning at times.
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