August 25, 2008

The Family That Surfs Together...: Surfwise and Bra Boys


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Ratings (out of 5):
Bra Boys **½
Surfwise ****

What can you say about a family that surfs? Apparently, plenty -- on the basis of the riveting documentary Surfwise -- but less so concerning the Australian film Bra Boys. The former, written and directed by Doug Pray (Scratch, Big Rig), tells the tale of the Paskowitz family, father Dorian "Doc," mother Juliette and their nine or ten children (truthfully, I lost count)--all of them boys except for a single girl. Dorian, a champion surfer, was indeed a doctor (and from the account here, a good one) who gave up the posh life to be a surfing "bum" and raise his family in a most unusual manner, eschewing normal schooling for the kids and instead raising them in the back of a large (but not large enough) traveling van, where, thin as rails, the family lived as best it could, with little money and little else.

The wonder of Mr. Pray's fine documentary is that "Doc" and his philosophy lure the viewer in, just as they seem to lure the director. Featuring intercut interviews with parents and children, the film suggests that Dorian's ideas and philosophy may have actually worked to some degree, and we are rocked back and forth between wonder, delight, confusion, and constant questioning. Then Pray drops his bomb -- and everything changes.

Via its encompassing fold (rather like that of a big wave), Surfwise takes in everything from family to religion, the individual against society, and of course the lure of the surf. Midway into the movie (and just post-bomb) I did question how -- and when -- the director chose to reveal his bit of surprise information. But after finishing the film and mulling it over, it seems to me that this is the documentary filmmaker's right: to construct his narrative, even though it is based on fact, in the manner that will make it rich, interesting, thought-provoking and as truthful as possible. In this Pray, has succeeded admirably. In fact, it gets better the more I think about it.


Comparisons may be odious but they're inevitable when you've watched in secession two films concerning families who surf. Bra Boys (yes, I initially imagined a movie about a transgendered band) is a documentary co-written (with Stuart Beattie) and co-directed (with Macario De Souza) by Sunny Abberton. In his mid-thirties, Mr. Abberton is the oldest son of the Australian family that is the subject of this documentary, a fact that simultaneously lends the film a unique perspective and robs it of distance and some amount of credibility.

Abetted by narration spoken by Aussie actor Russell Crowe, Abberton details the history of surfing in Australia (I wondered if some of his facts are off-base) and the rise of the Bra Boys in Maroubra (hence the "bra"), a beach suburb of Sydney. Though much of what we see here smacks of "gang" life, the BBs prefer the appellation "tribe" to that of "gang." The Abberton clan includes the director; his brothers Jai, Koby and Dakota; their drug-addicted mom and her violent boyfriend (we see almost nothing of these two); and their grandmother, whom they all call "Ma," and who provides a home for the brothers (after they must leave their mom), and for many other BBs, as well.

Unlike Surfwise, Bra Boys lets us in on almost nothing about its main characters, other than that they love surfing, drinking and brawling (especially with the local police). Any interest in the world outside Maroubra is nil, other than what kind of waves might occur there. And women -- except for the loving "Ma" -- are nearly nonexistent. The "bombshell" in this particular doc is alluded to early on and then exploded midway, which provides the track on which the movie rides to its conclusion. Because the filmmaker and his clan are set on burnishing the BB's reputations as best they can, the viewer must weigh carefully what is shown, taking much of it with the proverbial grain of (sea) salt. Unfair this may be, but the filmmakers offer little recourse.

To allay any reputation the group might have for racism or religious intolerance, Abberton provides some interesting info on recent Muslim/Surfer riots in which the BBs appear to have acted as peacemakers. One of the best moments comes at the conclusion, when the directors simply shoot in close-up the faces of many of the members, offering each fellow's cultural heritage: Italian/Australian, Chinese/Australian, Egyptian/Australian, and the most striking of all -- visually and symbolically -- Danish/Aborigine! Surfing, one surmises, can bring us together as well as any other sport.

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Posted by cphillips at August 25, 2008 2:27 PM
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