Surfing has come a long way. Originally called wave sliding and dating back to 400 AD in Hawaii, the sport has spiritual undertones with most participants feeling a call to the ocean. While the boards and wetsuits have evolved over time, surf politics and etiquette have been more stubborn in their evolution. It’s typical to hear about power dynamics in the water where bullying tactics and gang culture exists. Luckily, violent incidents are relatively infrequent with a sort of self-policing at play. When it comes to gender inequality, it seems some of the huge imbalances of the past still have a ripple effect today.
Ironically titled, Girls Can’t Surf, this sports documentary returns to the ’80s to a time when professional women’s surfing kicked off, “a circus of fluro colours, peroxide hair and radical male egos”. Taking a similar retrospective view, much like Dogtown and Z-Boys, the film focusses on Australia, where most of the decade’s top OP and ASP competitors (now interviewees) were based. The documentary captures the Zeitgeist of the international competition, rivalries, developments and politics with a special focus on gender inequality. While the debate was revisited in 2019 when a photo of two junior competitors in South Africa were pictured holding cheques with a massive prize discrepancy, its a matter that’s been raging on for decades.
Directed by Christopher Nelius, who’s best known for Storm Surfers, the filmmaker reconnects with Australian surfer, Tom Carroll, a prolific champion at the time who became the first surfing millionaire after signing a contract with Quiksilver in 1989. Having worked with Nelius on a few surf documentaries and lived on the other side of the debate, the commentator offers valuable insights on the matter as the primary male perspective. Besides these two influential voices, Girls Can’t Surf is mostly powered by women and represents an honest, humourous and powerful account of the not-so-golden age of surfing.
While mostly blonde and blue-eyed, the collective of interviewees represent some of the biggest names of all-time: Jodie Cooper, Frieda Zamba, Pauline Menczer, Lisa Andersen, Pam Burridge, Wendy Botha and Layne Beachley. Moving in a mostly chronological progression, each of these surf legends gets a chance to express their retrospective views without inhibition. This stick-it-to-the-man attitude fuels the documentary, which bristles with life thanks to brutally honest and laugh-out-loud funny reflections. South African-born Wendy Botha (pronounced Bowther) is particularly frank, sporting a take-no-prisoners attitude that made her unapologetically and fiercely independent in her heydays. The spectrum of absolute characters is what makes Girls Can’t Surf such a delight, moving from Botha’s cantankerous element to beloved surfer of the people, Pam Burridge and then onto to the squirrely go-getter Layne Beachley.
“Gnarly, man? Looks more gnarled to me.”
Offering insights into the sport’s sluggish evolution, professionalism, industry setbacks, outdated views and rise of surf brand sponsorship, Girls Can’t Surf is a comprehensive overview. A typically Aussie docco, it carries the same spirit of the proud sporting nation, carried through by competitive surfing stalwarts. The film takes an issues angle but doesn’t shy away from more intimate details about each of its characters, ushering in an emotional perspective on the quest for equality, bucking societal prejudices as well as overcoming setbacks. Many of these women turned to the waves as an escape from difficult home lives, as a career prospect or for medical conditions making their dominance of the sport a true triumph of the human spirit.
Each of the interviewees could have been the primary subject of their own documentary but combine life forces to make a land a much more forceful uppercut to the male-dominated system. Pioneers in their time, having forged ahead in spite of chauvinistic attitudes, slanted competition conditions and massive pay discrepancies, their bundu-bashing helped inspire more women to take up surfing and recalibrate the sport in terms of professional expectations. Full of moxie, it’s an infotaining and nostalgic journey back to the ’80s and ’90s, which while tainted by the openly accepted discrimination serves as a long-awaited confessional turned reckoning with the past.
They say a film is made three times. First on paper, then on film and once again in the editing room. While Julie-Anne De Ruvo has an expanse of experience as an editor, it’s easy to see how she garnered a co-writer credit for this powerful yet entertaining documentary. Moving at a steady pace and sucking in interviews, competition footage, home videos, news clips… Girls Can’t Surf encompasses decades worth of content. It’s incredible that De Ruvo has managed to condense this into the space of 100 minutes. While anything over 90 minutes is long for a documentary feature film, it’s been so beautifully compiled that it works even if you’ve never touched a surfboard. Moving from driving rock music and archive footage to interlacing reams of interview footage, the visuals fascinate, the themes anchor, the upbeat tone spurs and the edit glides.
While an all-rounder, the documentary could’ve broadened its outlook beyond Australia and touched on the sport’s racial exclusivity factor. Zooming into the gender barrier specifically, it hits bull’s eye and while tending towards becoming scattershot with its buffet of themes, manages to anticipate its audience’s appetite at every turn. If anything, the documentary gives enough impetus to warrant a more in-depth documentary mini-series in which they would have more time to give each aspect more attention.
Girls Can’t Surf is an engaging, colourful, entertaining, eye-opening and powerful chronicle and education of surf culture and gender politics through the decades. Tackling the challenges of the age from many angles, getting a seemingly uncensored retrospective from the pioneers themselves and fleshing it out with authentic characters, it’s a bittersweet tour down memory lane filled with heartache and hilarity.
The bottom line: Spirited