Tracing invisible lines


Ireland’s surf film festival, Shore Shots, was a turning point in a lot of ways. The organisers chased hard to secure the big-wave surfing documentary, The Wave I Ride, filmed and directed by Devyn Bisson and featuring the story of Maui surfer Paige Alms, an inspiring athlete who holds her own at the very male-dominated big-wave spot Jaws/Peahi (available on demand April 29th) It’s a huge credit to Shore Shots that they not only premiered it in Ireland but gave it a prime Saturday evening screening slot with the chance for maximum viewership. The irony that this film, made independently without any financial backing or sponsorship from the surf industry, preceded ‘the most expensive surf movie ever made’ of superstar surfer Jon Jon Florence was not lost on me.

Paige Alms, training in the documentary 'The Wave I Ride.'
Paige Alms, training in the documentary ‘The Wave I Ride.’

The highlight of the night at Shore Shots is the Surf Edits. A series of selected shorts of surfing in Ireland, that capture the best of the best from each of the missions the surf community has been on throughout the long winter months.

I wonder would a man have noticed, without it being pointed out? Where are all the women? Liz Clyne was the only female represented on the big screen, and in a wetsuit too. Although it was a single wave, a few seconds long and filmed in Mexico, not Ireland. Surfing colder climates, especially the wild Atlantic Irish coastline in Ireland can be bloody tough, downright brutal at times. So are there just not that many women who cold-water surf? We may not be many but we are there, we just remain unseen. The question then is, why are we invisible?

Photo: David Gray // Finisterre
Photo: David Gray // Finisterre

A lot of story-making involves a strong network of social ties. These connections help you create an in-road, build the skills and resources you need, mentor you, include you in an inner world unknown to outsiders. There simply aren’t enough women at the top within the (surf) film industry who could mentor aspiring female storytellers. We don’t have the same social circles, social relations or opportunities available to us that our male counterparts do. Because the notion of our ‘invisibility’ persists we get forgotten when it comes to being included in these surf missions and social gatherings were further ideas are sparked and collaborations formed to create an epic edit (and of course, the same can be said of women in leadership positions within business and politics and across many other sectors). Surfing, especially in Ireland and colder climates has its tightly formed cliques, largely a male-dominated ‘band of brothers’. Women who surf in Ireland have often come to it in a non-competitive way, and have a different relationship with surfing, often surfing alone. The narrative of perfectly honed, bikini-clad, incredibly young, hyper-sexualised and competitive shortboard surfing females in an idyllic, tropical location is overwhelming (as documented in Flux) and just doesn’t ring true for the reality of being a cold-water surfer.

This, I feel, is getting closer to the core of the issue of our ‘invisibility.’ It’s because of the stories we tell ourselves, the scripts we allow others to write and believe when we read, the narratives we live on a daily basis that we fail to question. It goes deeper than an issue of gender and sexuality alone and comes down to the feminine. By that I mean our relationship with our environment, the sea, the waves, the world around us, how we relate. It’s about how we are able to express ourselves, to give expression to who we are – freely and truly without conforming to social norms and cultural expectations.

With Director of Shore Shots, Allan Mulroney, discussing big-wave surfing, gender, identity and fear.
With Director of Shore Shots, Allan Mulroney, discussing big-wave surfing, gender, identity and fear.

“you think you are thinking your thoughts; you are not – you are thinking the culture’s thoughts.” – Krishnamurti.

There exists within the ‘surf film genre’ a culture of wave-porn. A culture that idolises shortboard surfing, hyper-masculinity, a domination over and taming of the ‘beast’ rather than a more intimate letting go and a surrender into the wild, untamed natural environment. A culture where the female surfer and femininity in surfing remain invisible.

Do we want to watch porn or do we want to make love? I know which I would choose. For me, its about the ‘surf genre’ needing to make that journey from wave porn to a more intimate relationship with our ocean environment. There were moments of this present at Shore Shots, especially in the other elements and talks the organisers wove between the film screenings. For example, the work of photographer George Karbus and his declaration for his love of being in the company of animals/wildlife; the almost shape-shifting and shamanic portrayal of relationships that exist in this more-than-human world; how our wave-riding movements are mirrored in the natural world around us; a seabird plunging into the sea, a dolphin surfing, a whale surfacing from the depths coming up for air, the power and grace in the lines of a blue shark. The Moy Hill Community of ‘growers’, Fergal, Matt and Sophie who spoke about their relationship with nature, how surfing teaches us that nature will always be in control and their lived-philosophy of keeping it simple, doing good work, building community, acting sustainably. For myself, being given the opportunity to step out of the box, out of my comfort zone and share my own creative process – how I work through fear, ideas, creative blocks through my art, soul collage, poetry and spoken word. Sharing words I would have previously kept reserved for the private pages of my journal, to remain unseen.

George Karbus sharinf a father, son, dolphin moment @ Shore Shorts
George Karbus sharinf a father, son, dolphin moment @ Shore Shorts

It’s this exploration of who we are through our fears and vulnerabilities, through authentic expression, that matters most. It’s a creative process that requires us to take a risk and declare who we are – to embody the very values that draw us into the sea in the first place. The time has come to shake off the covers, to discard the armour, to take a stand, to give voice to (y)our story, to be seen and heard. To give expression to what it means to be a a woman who surfs coldwater, to recover the femininity of surfing, the sensuality of the experience, how we feel our environment through all our senses, the fluidity of water, how we are in movement with waves, a water dance.

Sharing a creative process through soul collage and spoken word.
Sharing a creative process through soul collage and spoken word @ Shore Shots.

The world I want to see is one where its no longer a novelty to see a woman taking the lead and holding her own in a (big wave) feature documentary, without a single gratuitous ass-shot. Instead, its the norm, gender isn’t even a differentiating factor anymore. A world where we are able to represent ourselves the way we wish to be – where we have the freedom (and support) to authentically express who we are.

It’s all well and good to believe a more beautiful world is possible, but what are we going to do about it? I realised I was responsible – I, you, we are the only ones who can make change happen, by each of our individual actions combined, a coming together that leads to a collective movement. And its happening; the Institute for Women Surfers; Into the Sea – the story of Iran’s first female surfers; the History of Women’s Surfing; The Wave I Ride becoming a social platform for others to share the story of the wave they ride; an increasing number of articles and publications on surf-feminism; the recent, groundbreaking announcement of the Women’s championship event on the Big Wave World Tour; Keala Kennelly becoming the first women to win the WSL Biggest Barrel of the Year Award.

A discussion thread in response to ‘we need more women in surf film’ blew-up Instagram after Shore Shots and reaffirmed my belief that there are women out there who surf with their own stories to tell and a real desire for collaboration over competition, to share skills, to celebrate each others stories, and to make change happen;

Its brilliant to see such talent but my first thought was, where are the women? Myself and a friend who did video production are looking at it as a project (for next year) for womenwhosurf.” – @busylittlefoodie

The films were amazing visual pieces but we need new narratives and new subjects including actually featuring some women – in front and behind the camera.” – @gorseandcoconuts

We 100% need more films about women who surf and their stories. Need to continue the conversation.” – @otherislands

I’m excited about where women’s surfing in Ireland is going and what’s to come in the next year! We have our own unique surf culture here, albeit its small, so we should take what’s special and showcase it. Let’s do it!.” @elizabeth_clyne

I’m not disappointed, I’m inspired. I think it takes time and patience to grow into our own stories, to realise we have stories worth telling. And now there’s a community of women who want to support each other in expressing that. Let’s keep creating new narratives on, in, under the sea, in front and behind the lens.

We have less than 12 months until Shore Shots 2017. What story do you want to see, what story will you tell?

More love-making less (wave) porn.