Surfwise (2008) dir. Doug Pray
“Surfwise” is one of the most fascinating documentaries I've seen in a while - the story of the 'first family of surfing', the Paskowitzes, Doc and Juliet Paskowitz and their nine children who for ten years lived in 24ft camper traveling the U.S. living a vagabond life of surf and nothing else. Surfing is just a starting point here, as the film ultimately is the story of a fractured family and the journey toward reunification and foregiveness.
The story of Doc Paskowitz, the patriarch, is too strange for fiction. Doc. a Jew from Texas, moved to California when he was 13 and quickly fell in love with surfing in the early 50’s. Despite being a beach bum with D-grades, he 'squeeked' into Stanford and became a doctor. He moved to Hawaii and headed the State Board of Medicine. Doc had an early midlife crises, left medicine and all his material possessions and traveled to Israel, lived off the land on a kibbutz and introduced surfing the fledging country. We he returned home he met with Mexican-American wife Juliet and quickly started his family.
As Juliet explains, for ten years Juliet was either pregnant or nursing and 9 kids later, they had their full family. Instead of living a life of material comfort Doc and Juliet bought a camper and lived their lives on permanent vacation, surfing, exercising and living a clean life unemcombered by materialism - both physically and spiritually (like Chris McCandliss in "Into the Wild"). Sure it was cramped, but as Doc and the kids explain, it was a life every kid in the world dreamed of.
"Surfwise" is constructed into a traditional three-act dramatic arc. The narrative has a dramatic ebb and flow, moving from the highs and lows, comedy to tragedy sometimes gradually, sometimes sharply. Director Doug Pray continually surprises us with more and more headshaking information about this cookie family.
The second half shifts gears revealing the price of Doc's stubborn idealism. The kids were never educated – never. And so many dreams died – including an emotional confession of one of the younger sons who wanted to be a doctor, but at 17 found out his education was 10 years behind everyone else his age. Adam, who became the singer of “The Flys” (yes, that one-hit wonder from the 90’s), explains how he was ill-equiped to cope with regular society. As the story moves along, more of these revelations come to light about how the family dream came crashing down hard when the real world finally caught up with Paskowitzes.
The film is filled with off-the-wall humour. Doc and his wife talk candidly about the deeply spiritual connection to 'fucking' - not making love, or having sex, but 'fucking'. Their poor children even had to suffer through ten years of listening to their parents screw loudly and frequently in the van, sometimes mere feet away from the action. David is still emotionally scarred from these experiences and recounts his methods of plugging his ears to drown out the sound.
Not since "Capturing the Friedmans" have I seen such an open and candid story about family. All of the children appear on camera and freely confess their deep, dark secrets with entertaining candor. Each one is a distinct character with an infectious sense of humour. One of the special moments is David's angst-fueled rock song which he sings to camera as a cathartic 'fuck-you' to his father. The scene starts out as comedy, but then as David gets into the emotional lyrics and belts out vocals worthy of a stadium rocker it turns into a surprisingly dramatic confession.
Pray has a goldmine of photos, archival TV coverage, and scratchy 8mm home movies to visualize the five decades of the family's. And with the amount of surfing footage at his disposal there's never a dull visual moment on screen. He compliments the sun and surf attitude with a hip visual treatment and design, and a pitch-perfect musical score.
The film asked a number of existential and moral questions. Was Doc an inspiration as a father, or a failure? What should the responsibility of a parent be to one's child? "Surfwise" would appear to tell us that Doc's ideals couldn't match up to reality. But would any one of them change their lives if they had a chance - definitely not. Enjoy.