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We caught up with filmmaker Christopher Nelius to discuss his his eye-opening and totally bodacious new documentary, Girls Can’t Surf.
Spoiler alert… They can!
It’s the 1980s and the world of professional surfing is a circus of fluoro colours, peroxide hair and radical male egos. Girls Can’t Surf follows the journey of a band of renegade surfers who took on the male-dominated professional surfing world to achieve equality and change the sport forever.
Featuring surfing greats Jodie Cooper, Frieda Zamba, Pauline Menczer, Lisa Andersen, Pam Burridge, Wendy Botha, Layne Beachley and more, Girls Can’t Surf is a wild ride of clashing personalities, sexism, adventure and heartbreak, with each woman fighting against the odds to make their dreams of competing a reality.
“Isn’t it ironic that one of the biggest moments in the film is when they refuse to surf? People cheered at that moment and I totally did not expect that.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
Are you a surfer?
I am. I took it up in my twenties. I’m not really like a fanatic. So for example, I’m not a huge surf culture fan, but I am a fan of that 1980s version of it. It’s just something about that generation that’s wild, it’s bombastic, it’s the fluoro colors and that effusive 80s hope and like, “I’m going to be a fucking rock star,” on the male side and on the female side. There’s just so many characters and so much charisma that you just don’t have in sport anymore. It was almost like some of the characters and charisma you’d see in tennis, but wilder, because they weren’t in the mainstream spotlight. I’ve always just been attracted to that. And I think that’s why I ended up having the idea.
The response to Girls Can’t Surf has been incredible. Australians respond very well to to documentaries.
Yeah, it’s been really positive. I mean, we’ve done really just kind of preview screenings so far, like some Q&A’s and stuff. It’s cool. The crowd seem to be into it., It seems like people are really responding to the story and the characters. So fingers crossed for the wider release. I did notice a couple of women were wondering what do those blokes featured in the documentary think now? Did you talk to any of them, and all that stuff? That’s the one where I was probably like, “I don’t know, who cares?”
Well, that’s interesting because that was definitely one of my questions. Have you had any feedback from the blokes who say some pretty terrible things about the female surfers.
This is the female surfers’ story. I’m not trying to derive those questions, but isn’t it interesting how that comes up? We’re always worried about how those guys are being portrayed. And I’m not saying it’s a bad question, but yeah.
I guess it’s not so much me being worried about how they feel now. I’m more curious as to whether they’ve changed their attitude or not.
I totally get that curiosity on that level. We obviously talked about that, making the film, like do we want to know what they think? And for me, that started to just steer the story into a story about the men, rather than it being a story about the women. And for me, from the very beginning, the whole kind of, not the mantra, but one of the goals was that this be their voice that tells the story. And that means their point of view. And every now and then, our characters like Dick Carol and whatnot will help us contextualise that view within the broader industry, which was necessary, and I love those characters being in the film. But I think if we started to bring those old men into the film, then it becomes a film about them and their attitudes and their journey. Whereas that’s a different film for me. I just wanted to make this very much from the women’s point of view.
And it certainly is. I wonder then how you feel as a man telling this story?
I had the idea for the film on my own. I can genuinely hand on heart say that it’s my idea, and I definitely at the very beginning was like, “Well, am I the right person to do it? Am I allowed to do it?” And then I was like, “Of course I’m allowed to do it.” But is it the best way to do it? So I did actually think, okay, do I know any women, a woman that’s going to jump out where I go, “Oh, you’re the one to tell this story.” And at that time, I’d just started doing the research and contacting the women, talking to them and pulling the stories together. And I built a rapport with them and I was just like, “Oh man, I just love this story too much.” And so at the same time, I was very conscious that if I’m going to be a guy and I’m going to tell this story, then I need to surround myself, my heads of department, so to speak, with the right women. And so my editor, Julie-Anne De Ruvo, who I knew from the beginning, I made sure that we were co-writers in the film, she and I have known each other for 20 years. We’ve worked together many times before and there wasn’t going to be anyone better to cut the film. So I was like, “Yes, I’ve got a woman there.” I found a female producer that was the right person and the cinematographer’s a woman. And it wasn’t just for the optics of it. But this is the one where you want women behind the camera. I just didn’t think it disqualified me from doing it because I already knew a bit about surfing and I’d already started the research.
The film is full of these jaw-dropping, inequitable moments throughout the history of competitive surfing for women. And even though you were familiar with this story, did it still surprise you to hear what some surfers had to say during the interviews?
Yeah, it did, especially when it became personal. It’s easy to just say, “Oh, it was a sexist culture, male-dominated.” I mean, that’s a broad, overarching comment. But when you hear it coming out of a real anecdote in a line of dialogue that’s been told to one of these women from a guy on the sand at a contest, you know what I mean? It becomes more real and it becomes more personal. I mean, I think that’s why I followed through in wanting to make film, because they’re such genuine characters, but living through those stories with those characters is what creates the empathy and create a really deep understanding of the shocking aspect of some of what happened to them. And it’s also, I think, perhaps one of the angles that surprised me and enlightened me was the institutional side of it. Yes, there’s the emotional part of some guy on the board is saying, “Get out of the water. Chicks can’t surf,” you know what I mean? There’s this visceral aspect of that, which is shocking. But then when you hear Layne Beachley talk about how sponsors would basically blackmail their athletes and make them surf in crap conditions or else they’d lose their sponsorship, then it was like, “Oh, that’s an institutional evil. That’s a much darker form of sexism that doesn’t get illuminated very well all the time.” And in the process of interviewing them, that’s where I was like, “Oh, wow.” I think Lisa says it in the film, “It sounds like a Wall Street story.” And it really is. It really is. And I think that’s in the marketing of the film, something I hope we’ve managed to get across. This isn’t just fluff. Just because it’s surfing and it’s funny, doesn’t mean there isn’t something very profound here and yeah, that was super interesting to experience.
Does the modern day surfer recognise these surfers and their past struggles?
Well, I mean, obviously I can’t answer for the modern day surfer, but I think generally no. And so that was part of my drive to make the film. I’d paddle out at Bondi and I’d see how many more women there are, and young women. And I just wonder, I bet you don’t know who Pauline Menczer is, and I bet you don’t know the real story of Roxy and how Roxy started and how women’s clothing surf wear started. I bet you don’t know the story. And I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. And also from feedback we’re getting, and I know feedback that the surfers have been getting is a lot of people coming up to them just going, “I had no idea.” Because no one’s told the story before. In research, there are a couple of them have little biographies, but no one’s really written the book on this history yet. And so, I mean, that was part of the challenge as well, and when we were editing the film, was to try to get our facts straight. There was no reference material.
Was there anyone in particular you wanted to feature in the documentary who couldn’t be a part of it?
Yeah, there was the first ASP winner in 1982 or ’81. But her name’s Kim Mearig. She’s in the film. The girls talk about her and all that kind of stuff, so she’s in it. I did want to interview her, but she was in Santa Barbara and I think she was going through a rough patch and stuff and we tried multiple times to film an interview with her. But it just, unfortunately, over the space of a year, year-and-a-half, it didn’t work out. So I would have loved to have had her.
You have an established career in advertising. What was it like finding these old ads and some of the old surfers and the footage that they appeared in during the peak of their career?
So cool. That Coke ad that Jodie did in Nias. The one where she’s like, “Can you show us where the waves are?” is such a good ad. And it was funny because in the research I found an old YouTube clip, which was like a behind the scenes film on the making of that ad. It was cool. And I kind of remembered that from when I was a kid and I remember thinking, oh, that chick’s really spunky. And a million years later, I’m making a film with her. That Coke one was definitely a really well-made ad.
And all that fashion has come back.
Oh yeah, totally. I think I kind of knew that as well. You can start to say the 80s thing coming back in, and even in the surf brands, like they’re really starting to, or they’ve already started to lean on that history of their own. And so I was like, “Oh, you know what? That part of it’s going to be cool as well.” Hopefully people want to see that. It’s loads of fun for people to look back at that stuff.
What’s your favourite moment of women in surf?
In the film, it’s hard to beat that moment where Pauline has the suffragette moment, and says, “Don’t peddle out.” And isn’t it ironic that one of the biggest moments in the film is when they refuse to surf? It was interesting when we played at the State Theatre for the Sydney Film Festival, people cheered at that moment and I totally did not expect that. She’s a bit of a hidden gem, Pauline, and already, you can see that that tide is turning very rapidly, with a bit of fame coming her way.
Girls Can’t Surf is in cinemas from March 11.