By Richard von Busack
Dana Brown is the son of the man I’ve heard described as the only really financially successful independent filmmaker in history, Bruce Brown (Endless Summer, et al). Happily the guava didn’t fall far from the tree, as Dana Brown’s Highwater captures the newest generation of surfing excitement, just as his father did decades ago in his many documentaries.
The loose setting is 2008’s triple-crown of surfing at Oahu’s North Shore: the OP Pro Hawaii in Haleiwa, the O’Neill World Cup at Sunset Beach and the finale Annual Rip Curl Pro Pipeline Masters at Pipeline. (Dana Brown comments that judging a surf competition must seem subjective, but when it comes to Pipeline the rules are simplicity itself: get into these speeding, rolling tunnels of water and come out alive.) In the Hawaiian winter, the ordinarily good surfing becomes phenomenal, thanks to storm waves coming in unimpeded for two thousands miles from the North Pacific. During November and December, the quiet island countryside, where there are more cattle than people, become deluged with cameras and hundreds of spectators.
In Highwater, we watch some tremendous surfing by old and young, by the physically fit and the physically different. We see Bethany Hamilton in action, still surfing after she lost an arm to a shark. One paraplegic local can still catch a wave with a little help from his friends. The rise of women’s surfing is essential to this story: newcomers Carissa Moore and Sofia Mulanovich (the first South American to win a world surfing title) as well as pioneers Rochelle Ballard and Chelsea Georgeson.
Highwater is as much a scene report and scrapbook of North Shore life as it is a record of sports finals. On camera are figures the younger Brown grew up with, as well as those he knows as greats in the sport. Here are North Shore “soul surfers” like the brave eccentric Eric Haas (legendary for being the kind of man who’d wear a football uniform while riding a wave), and up and comers like the 13 year old prodigy Jon-Jon Florence. Brown not only has the trust of the people he interviews, he’s also a gifted sportswriter. He inverts the clichés and asks the right questions, and after an hour or so you get the feeling of being on scene, being taken into confidence by the locals.
There are worries about how long the scene can last. The North Shore is under siege by developers. Rough-hewn champ Sunny Garcia describes his prayers that a good hurricane will wash away the mansions that the filthy rich are constructing on the shore. But without exaggeration or overselling, Brown’s documentary captures the ambient sense of inner peace that unites these wave riders, whether pro, semi-pro or happy amateurs.