Review: Girls Can't Surf
I was going to begin this review by saying 'Girls Cant Surf' wasn’t the film I was expecting, but that remark isn’t entirely correct.
You see, it wasn’t the content of the film that took me by surprise, but how it was delivered.
In the modern context, feminism falls into the culture wars, with climate change on one side and gender issues on the other. All the topics are embedded into two opposing camps, each of which offers their followers predictable and reactionary explanations.
Deep dives into history and discourse are rare, but ‘Girls Can’t Surf’ is one of them, and it’s a thoroughly engaging plunge.
Produced by Chris Nelius and Michaela Perske, the seed of the story germinated while Nelius was making his last film, 'Storm Surfers', when Ross Clarke-Jones and Tom Carroll shared stories of their ‘80s heydays. They regaled Nelius with tales from around the circuit; how there was an illusion of riches yet they still scraped their way around the world.
Nelius knew there was no way the women surfers made anywhere near the money RCJ and Tom made, so he asked himself, “How the hell did they do it? How did the women get around the world?" And so, with the curiosity of a journalist he went looking for answers and found himself one hell of a story.
The tale is essentially told via the big guns of ‘80s women surfing. Think Freida Zamba, Pam Burridge, Wendy Botha, Jodie Cooper, Jorja and Joleen Smith, and Pauline Menczer, as they describe their time on tour - a period that coincided with the first flush of money into pro surfing.
Unlike the previous generation who all - the men and the women - did it for the love and were untroubled by money woes, the women of the ‘80s found themselves on the wrong end of every decision once money entered the game. What seems a simple goal - equality - becomes fraught with complexity as the women describe the cross currents that kept taking them under.
Whether it be justifying their return on investment, crowd numbers, looks and marketability, or sales impact, the women had to do much more than simply surf well. Any number of reasons were proffered to keep women’s surfing as the sideshow to the main attraction of men’s surfing. Even the bikini contest copped higher billing at some contests.
From this vantage point forty years hence, it’s easy to forget how badly the system was stacked against the women - and by the same token, why society needs people ready to rattle the cage.
With the obstacles noted, Nelius and Perske begin a slow deconstruction of each, sometimes concluding without resolution, there’s no obvious right or wrong, only what the women surfers faced in order to be treated as equals.
In a recent interview with Swellnet, Nelius mused that the challenges the women surfers faced made them the charismatic figures they became. That may be so, but when Jorja Smith wells up while recounting the story of Megan Abubo earning six figures, the viewer gets the sense that maybe they’d swap it all if they could. Of course that’s all too simplistic, but nevertheless, the scene is one of the best in the film, with those tears saying more than most words could.
In the aforementioned interview, Nelius said he didn’t set out to make a “man-bashing” documentary, and by deftly keeping the spotlight on the women and their travails he’s done so. Large tracts of time pass with the sole focus on the hardships the women faced and not the structures that created them. This is not adversarial argument but something else, an invitation for empathy perhaps?
Three-quarters of the way into the film the story shifts into the ‘90s with the main players moving aside for Lisa Anderson, Layne Beachley, Rochelle Ballard, and Megan Abubo, who are the first females to enjoy lucrative deals - Wendy Botha’s Playboy deal notwithstanding.
Later still, the story is brought up to date when the World Surf League offers equal prize money to women surfers. Which wasn’t an altruistic move, as it’s sometimes painted, but done in response to a campaign for equality - the WSL buckled. More proof that change comes from rattling the cage.
With the goal of equality achieved - at least as it appears on the winners’ cheques - you could call ‘Girls Can’t Surf’ a redemption story, but unfortunately the real heroes of the film: Pam, Jodie, feisty old Wendy, Frieda, and the Smith twins - the women who fought the battle - aren’t the ones who receive the spoils.
Hopefully having their story finally told counts for something.