DURBAN — Forty-two years after leaving apartheid South Africa, Cape Town-born helmer and indie film pioneer Michael Oblowitz had a single question for the crowd gathered Sunday night for the opening of the Wavescape Surf Film Festival in Durban: “How’s the surf?”
On a chilly, blustery night, with waves crashing along the Bay of Plenty on the palm-lined stretch of Durban waterfront dubbed the Golden Mile, close to 1,000 movie-goers turned out to unfurl picnic blankets, bundle into their ski parkas, and sip South African pinotage during the African premiere of Oblowitz’s acclaimed surf documentary, “Heavy Water: The Life and Times of Nathan Fletcher.”
The California transplant, who learned the ropes of filmmaking alongside the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Kathryn Bigelow in the gritty, indie New York scene of the 1970s, was a fitting choice to open Wavescape’s 14th edition, running parallel to the Durban Int’l. Film Festival. Reared on surf magazines as a boy in South Africa, and now in his 60s, the director of the iconic surf documentary “Sea of Darkness” is still an avid surfer. “It was a bit blown out by the time I woke up,” he told the crowd at his premiere, “but I still went out.”
“Heavy Water” is the story of the surf prodigy Fletcher, a scion of one of surfing’s royal families and a key figure in Big Wave history. A budding icon at the age of 11, Fletcher was burnt out on competitive surfing as a teenager before reviving his career in his early 20s, when he conquered the legendary waves at Tahiti’s Teahupo’o to solidify his position as one of the greatest surfers of his generation.
Oblowitz met Fletcher not long after what the director described as “a benchmark ride in modern extreme sports,” entering his close-knit circle of friends for a film that world premiered to close San Sebastian’s Savage Cinema showcase in 2015.
“When I did the first rough cut of this movie, and it played at San Sebastian, I got so much flak from the surf community, because I showed these surfers dying in the film,” said Oblowitz. “These guys within that extreme sports world form a family. And the film is about a series of deaths, and how Nathan and his friend…manage to transcend the incredibly debilitating experience of their closest friends [dying].”
Surfing for Oblowitz is about existential questions as much as the pulse-pounding thrill of riding the waves. “There’s a film I did with Twiggy Baker, from South Africa, where he talks about the ‘metallic taste of fear in your mouth’ when you paddle into these huge waves,” he said. “And the question is, ‘Why do these guys risk their lives? What’s the reward?’ And the answer I got is because they stand outside the dominant culture of society in a way that allows them to live with a kind of existential freedom, that gives them a transcendent life.”
Wavescape director and co-founder Steve Pike, who is regarded as one of the pillars of the South African surf scene, launched the festival in Cape Town in 2004 with partner Ross Frylink. The following year, former Durban fest director Peter Rorvik invited the duo to launch a local edition running parallel to DIFF, telling them, “This is surf city.”
Drawing on the tight-knit local surf community, Wavescape has grown into one of the Durban fest’s most popular sidebars, while expanding its Cape Town festival to include conservation initiatives and educational programs. “We grow from strength to strength,” said Pike.
From July 23-27, Wavescape takes over uShaka Marine World, the aquarium and marine theme park in Durban, for free nightly screenings. This year’s program includes 22 features and shorts from as far afield as Hawaii, New Zealand, Morocco, Sri Lanka, and Sierra Leone. Among the highlights are the African premieres of Ira Opper’s “Secrets of Desert Point,” the story of four Californians who stumble across the perfect wave in Indonesia, which Pike describes as “a piece of pioneering surf history,” and Aaron Lieber’s “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable,” the untold story of the pro surfing icon who lost her arm to a shark attack as a child, which closes the festival.
The selection, which includes adrenaline-rush adventure shorts and more contemplative features, reflects the evolution of the surf film genre. “The scene’s actually grown,” said Pike. “It’s become a lot more narrative.”
Judging from the turnout Sunday night, Wavescape will continue to have a home in Durban. “It’s really such a stoke to see you happy and big smiles on your faces,” Pike told the crowd.