Believe it or not, documentaries existed long before the age of streaming services. In those days, dedicated showings were the norm, with VHS and later DVDs made available for purchase. And unlike your standard movie, at least in the realm of surfing, these sorts of docs were purposed to help tell a story, uncover a counterculture, or shed light on more eccentric lifestyles and personalities within the sport to facilitate their immortality. Fortunately, we have a little bit of everything outlined here in this forthcoming list.
Ironically enough, there’s really only a fine line between (and obviously some overlap) between surf movies and surf documentaries. Clearly, shooting and editing footage of the sport isn’t fiction by any means. However, for our purposes we decided to go with several staple documentaries that really hit home for us, leaving the reader in a contemplative state after absorbing the information presented before them. For example, you’ll find detailed accounts of the relationship between surfing and the counterculture during the hippie movement, a biographical insight into who’s been dubbed surfing’s “Prince of Decadence,” and an in-depth look at a notorious surf gang from the beaches of Sydney, Australia among others, of course.
A Brokedown Melody
Surfing is a pastime fueled by heirlooms, whether it be an old board passed down from grandfather to father to son, or the art of wave riding is embedded within the family bloodline, the generational aspect of the sport cannot – and should not – be ignored. It’s along the vein that director Chris Malloy explored the times, travels and experiences of a group of surfers who simultaneously search for life’s essence in the waves they ride, the places they travel, and the people they meet. All while, looking to pass their accrued wisdom and experience onto younger generations.
Under An Arctic Sky
We’re all familiar with Chris Burkard, the renowned photography and adventure journalist who lives the sort of life most of us only dream about. Well, it turns out he’s a damn good filmmaker as well – pushing the limits of perfection and surfing’s stereotypes in general. In Under An Arctic Sky, white sand beaches are replaced with freshly fallen snow and ice; palm trees with icebergs and snow-covered cliffs in the backdrop. Its the story of six surfers who set sail along the frigid Icelandic coastline in search of the perfect wave as the heaviest storm in recent memory prepares to unleash a fury or weather, wind, and waves on the island nation. A must see without a doubt.
As the stepson to Clark Gable and the heir to a Hawaiian sugar fortune, rebellious surf star Bunker Spreckels tuned his back on his family’s expectations and became known for his spectacular decadence and hard-partying lifestyle between Hawaii, Hollywood, and South Africa. On top of all that, he was a big wave charger at one point living in the Hawaiian jungle before inheriting a fortune. Here, director Takuji Masuda partners up with those who knew Spreckels all too well (Tony Alva, Laird Hamilton, etc) to help tell the tale of “The Player” who was taken from the sport at a young age, but whose eccentric personality and lifestyle lives on in the memories of those who knew him best.
The Green Iguana
Hired by Billabong in 1990, director Jack McCoy set out with the likes of Mark Occhilupo, Munga Barry, Ross Williams, and Shane Dorian to shoot a surf movie that, at the time, would push the boundaries of what previous projects were able to offer. What resulted was one of the rawest, and most visually pleasing surf films of the time. Above all else, it managed to capture these legends in their prime – Occy in particular – showcasing his powerhouse surfing at its finest as well as hosting some of the earliest footage ever captured of the picturesque Mentawai islands.
Morning of the Earth
There’s no way this list wouldn’t be complete without at least one spiritual doc on how surfing can often present a transcendental experience to wave riders. Morning of the Earth does just that – as it’s director Alby Falzon documents the journeys of a group of surfers as they travel from place to place, building their own shelter and boards along the way. Throughout the film, this group makes their way from the northeast Australian coast up to Bali and Hawaii throughout the early 70s. It’s known as one of the finest surf documentaries around, boasting some of the very first footage of pioneering surfers riding the now famous waves of Uluwatu in Bali’s southern coastline, which effectively put the country on the map as a destination for surfers the world over.
Anyone who’s surfed at one point or another in their lives have experienced localism in some form. Bra Boys – directed by Sunny Abberton and narrated by Russel Crowe – documents the rise and status quo of a notorious surf gang that evolved out of the Sydney, Australia suburb of Maroubra. Known as the Bra Boys, this band of brothers is feared, revered and respected by those in and around the area. Together, this group has a reputation for big wave surfing, hard partying and what’s been dubbed as “rough justice” for those who cross them.
Sea of Darkness
In what has to be one of the most controversial (but best) surf documentaries ever made, Sea of Darkness is not without its conspiracies. At it core, this is the story of Michal Oblowitz’s documentary on the discovery of G-Land (a now world famous surf spot) and the drug smuggling culture that, for better or worse, built the surf industry as a group of surfers/smugglers discovered countess Indonesian surf spots throughout the 70s and 80s. It won countless awards at practically every festival it entered, but for some reason disappeared from circulation – which many believe to be the result of major players in the industry burying the project for fear of incrimination.
The Endless Summer
In one of the first docs released that explored the life and times of traveling surfers, Director Bruce Brown followed the likes of Robert August and Michael Hynson around the globe as they mingled with locals and surfed remote destinations in Africa, the South Pacific, Australia and Central America as they searched for the perfect wave. It’s a story that still rings true today, and certainly resonates with surfers and filmmakers across all industries.
The 12 Best Surf Movies
For more action, be sure to check out this list of the 12 best surf movies from over the past few decades.