Shannon Denny recently caught up with documentary filmmaker Heather Hudson to find out more about her mission to capture girls on film… (all photos courtesy Graciegirl / Swell Pictures)
“I kept saying, ‘I don’t want it to be negative.’ I didn’t want it to be a male-bashing film at all.” First-time director Heather Hudson has two teenage sons, a husband and counts Gerry Lopez as a friend. So when she and co-producer Peck Euwer – who happens to be a bloke – set about making ‘The Women and the Waves’, the goal was not to start a bikini-burning revolution, but simply to explore the experience of surfing over the decades from the feminine perspective.
Having started surfing in the 1970s when she moved with her family to Malibu as a teenager, Heather’s personal experience positioned her perfectly to tackle the project. “Back then there weren’t a lot of women surfing. You just didn’t see other women in the water,” she says. “You pretty much had to teach yourself.”
She recalls the day that she first went out in small waves at Surfrider Beach on a board borrowed from her boyfriend. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m always going to do this my whole life.’ I just knew it.” Nevertheless, a decent set rolled in and the boyfriend urged Heather off the board so he could catch a wave. “It cracks me up. He said, ‘Get off, get off the board.’ That’s how much the boys helped the girls surf!” she laughs raucously.
The film – which gets its UK premiere 24 April at the Surf Show in Bristol – documents the experiences of 10 female surfers ages 17 to 64 as they’ve made their marks in the water, and as the water has made its mark on them. Weaving interviews together with archival footage and new high-definition surfing scenes, it’s a tribute to early female pioneers who paddled out into all-male line-ups and charged waves where women had previously feared to tread.
As well as the subject matter, the format of the film has a woman’s touch too. “Women like to discuss things. We like to talk about stuff!” Heather points out. “There are so many surf films, but the ones that interest me are the ones where you learn a little bit about the people. I love hearing people’s stories – that’s the way I am.”
The interview subjects range from five-time Women’s World Champion Linda Benson, who began riding waves at age 11 in 1955, to 22-year-old Aussie waterwoman Shakira Westdorp, who regularly drops into heart-stopping bombs at Waimea Bay. But the reflection doesn’t stop there – Peck and Heather also turned the lens on figures close to the surfers themselves. Mothers, friends, husbands and boyfriends talk about the girls and women they love and their unquenchable addiction for waves.
Heather’s favourite quote in the film came from Jenny Useldinger’s mother, who was herself a pro surfer in the 1970s. “She says surfing is a dance; it’s not brute strength against the wave. You need to have finesse and you need to know how to swim – it’s not necessarily being a muscleman.”
A major component of Heather’s motivation for making the film was to shed light on an area that doesn’t always get much airplay. “The image that the media puts out is so different from everyday life for surfers. There are young men that are 18 to 25 that rip, ok? Other people look at surfing and they think that those are the only people that surf. But in everyday life now there are kids that are five, there are old men that are 80. There are all types of different people that surf.”
Gradually the film took on another purpose as well, emerging as a snapshot of an era that’s swiftly fading away. These days the profile of women’s surfing is undeniably on the rise, with Maya Gabeira grabbing column inches all over the mainstream press for her big wave exploits and ‘Surfer’ magazine ending its 14-year single-sex streak with its Carissa Moore cover last year. ‘The Women and the Waves’ reminds us that feats like these would have been impossible were it not for a few lone female riders back in the day who dared to take the plunge.
The film documents the way things were when ladies wore boys’ boardshorts because no-one was manufacturing them for girls, when the only women depicted in surfing magazines were lying on beaches in bikinis reading paperbacks, and when more than two girls in a line-up was cause for comment. “It’s like a little time capsule saying, ‘This is what happened’,” affirms Heather.
Since its debut last year, ‘The Women and the Waves’ has been an official selection at 13 film festivals, and has been screened in front of audiences from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz and from New Zealand to New York. Its thoughtful observations have broad appeal across geography – not to mention gender. “Men do come up after screenings thanking me,” Heather says, “because a lot of them have wives and girlfriends and daughters that surf.”
The best endorsement so far however has come from a Hollywood-born octogenarian who got her surfing start in Malibu in the mid-50s. By 1958, the legendary Marge Calhoun was charging the North Shore and winning the Makaha. If anyone knows what it’s like to make it in a man’s world, it’s her. She sent Heather a two-page handwritten thank you letter after watching the film. “Well finally, after years of waiting and wishing,” it reads, “you and your friends have come through with a picture capturing the hearts and souls of true women of the ocean and surfing world, as I have always felt it to be, but thought I was alone and others didn’t understand. Your documentary captures it all with great narration to complete the picture. I don’t know if I ever met these women but I somehow live in them. They are the real thing.”
‘The Women and the Waves’ premieres at 4.30pm on Saturday 24 April at the WaveRiders Film Festival during the Surf Show, an event celebrating surfing, ocean sports and coastal lifestyle through fashion, film, photography, art, music, demonstrations, lectures and more. Tickets are available online.
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