Surfwise is the second surfing documentary to come out in the last month (the other being the Russell Crowe-narrated Bra Boys, about Sydney surfer gangs). Both films are about people more than they are about surfing, and both examine questions of family, community, and brotherhood against the backdrop of big waves.
Surfwise, directed by Doug Pray, probably belongs more to the "dysfunctional family" documentary genre than it does the sports movie. It feels closer in spirit to films like Capturing the Friedmans or the Up series than to the sort of feel-good sports featurette you might see on ESPN or before the Olympics.
In many ways, Surfwise is a biographical memoir—a probing look at the life and legacy of one very singular man: Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, now 85 years old and still surfing every day. The film begins with Dorian (who describes himself as "one of the few dumb Jewish doctors you will ever meet") recounting his tumultuous early life: his medical education at Stanford, his early adoption of the sport of surfing, and his first two failed marriages. One day in 1956 he decided to make a change in his life and drop all illusions of being a "real person." He took a trip to Israel and spent a year wandering the desert like Jesus, tried (and failed) to join the Israeli military, then embarked on a licentious odyssey of sexual freedom which culminated in his marrying his third (and current) wife, Juliette.
Things only got stranger from here. He and wife Juliette bought an RV, took to the highways, and started having babies: nine total when all was said and done. For much of the 1960s and 70s, the family lived together out of this camper, traveling around the country to surf and frolic and, well, just be a family. The kids never went to school, never had any semblance of normal social interaction, and were subjected to strict physical and dietary regimes driven by Dorian's mantra: "Eat healthy, live clean, surf clean." It's the sort of scenario child services would jump on in an instant: two parents and nine truant children (eight boys and one girl) living together in a cramped 24-foot RV, sharing one bathroom, scavenging for food, living as animals in the wild. "I just wanted my kids around me, surfing with me," explains Dorian. "Education be damned."
This curious living situation, combined with Dorian's already-established name in the surfing world, made the Paskowitz family something of a media sensation: a novelty family somewhere between the von Trapps and the Swiss Family Robinson. Naturally, the kids became great surfers, collecting junior competition trophies by the truckload and becoming something of a surfing dynasty. Several of the boys eventually went pro and made careers out of surfing tours, endorsements, etc. The family also started a summer surf camp that still exists today.
The most striking thing about Surfwise, however, is the way that it represents the dynamics (social, psychological, spiritual) of family: how, for instance, one man with a strong personality and elevated ego can exert his vision, for good and ill, on his bevy of offspring. Dorian comes across as a very selfish man with an idea of what life should be, a man who forces his nine children to live according to his very unconventional framework. He views man as no greater than gorillas, believing that to live in the wild and commune with nature (i.e., surfing) is the truest existence possible. This very secular, biological outlook on humanity doesn't seem congruent with other aspects of his life, however. For example, he takes his Jewishness very seriously and instructs his kids in the faith, though it isn't clear how orthodox a faith it actually was. In fact, Dorian admits early on to the camera that "I don't have the faintest idea who God is." For him, religion is family, and sex, and living in the wild.