Indigenous Surfers, Struggling Women and Life on Papa New Guinea: An Interview With Adam Pesce, Creator of the Film <em> Splinters </em>

Indigenous Surfers, Struggling Women and Life on Papa New Guinea: An Interview With Adam Pesce, Creator of the Film <em> Splinters </em>

Jordan Wright

In surfing the practitioner is required to be in complete harmony with the vagaries of nature. It’s a unique sport in which the skilled athlete must alternately strive to conquer and surrender – be emboldened and yet chastened by the force and changeability of both wind and water. Its requirements are non-negotiable. To succeed you must strike a perfect balance between physical strength and humility.

Exactly when and where humans hatched the notion of riding a wave is impossible to pinpoint. Watching a bird coast on a branch in the sea may have been the genesis. We do know that ancient Polynesians migrating to the Eastern Pacific eventually made their way to Hawai’i bringing their paipo or belly boards. But for Papua New Guineans, who refer to their boards as “splinters”, surfing took on a bold new dynamic in the 1980’s when an Australian pilot named “Crazy Taz” left his surfboard behind and the cultural landscape was forever altered.

For Adam Pesce, who grew up in Santa Barbara, California, the legendary Rincon Beach was where he honed his passion for surfing and dreamt of conquering other shores. In 2003 his dream was realized when he took off with friends to Papua New Guinea (PNG) part of a string of islands off the east of the Malay Archipelago in the South Pacific. He had taken a minor film course and was stoked to shoot some video while hitting the waves.

When he got back he realized the travelogue-style footage he shot did not have the makings of a film and he abandoned the project for five years until a call out of the blue came from Andrew Abel, President of the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea. Andy told him they were planning their first national surfing championships in PNG. The trials would determine who would represent the country at the world surfing games in Australia. With this dramatic turn of events Pesce knew he would have his film and he raced back to PNG where he would become director, producer, editor and cinematographer on his first film.

The making of Splinters meant literally living among the natives for nine months. Armed with nothing but camera gear, a few surfboards and a degree in diplomacy and world affairs from Los Angeles’ Occidental College, Pesce arrived back on the island. He pondered how the random introduction of a surfboard would effect the native population. Would it become the undoing of the island’s indigenous heritage or a passport to freedom for its youth? Whether it was for the better or worse he would have to find out later. But first he needed to learn the language.

Of the 850 languages spoken throughout this Indonesian island chain of 5 million people, the most common is Melanesian Pidgin (Tok Pisin). Pesce learned the language without a translator, moved into an old shack with one of the surfers and began shooting between bouts of malaria. His goal wasn’t to make a “surf movie”, but to tell the story of how a surfboard changed a culture.

The remote seaside community of Vanimo is not as idyllic as it appears on the surface. A lush tropical paradise from outward appearances, it’s a shapeshifting culture at its heart. The country itself is complex, clinging desperately to a dark primitive past. Up until recently cannibalism and “cargo cults” were still practiced in the more remote villages and today it is still a strict patriarchal society even as it becomes increasingly westernized through its mining and fishing industries.

Caught between ancient taboos and emerging cultural changes, the country’s struggles are often more sociological than economical. For example in order to consummate a marriage, women are still bought by men through a “bribe price” which in turn allows them to physically abuse them, a tragic fact included in the film’s portrayal of family life and one that reflects the nation’s standing as one of the highest in the world for domestic violence. That families endorse and perpetuate this long-standing custom, even participating in the abuse of their own children, is perhaps the most shocking aspect of the film.

Splinters is the first feature-length social documentary about the evolution of indigenous surfing in the South Pacific and the near fanatical obsession of the island’s surfers. The film revolves around two competing surf clubs and the relationships between the people who are the characters in the film. Steve, Ezekiel and Angelus are surfing rivals in Vanimo Village where nearly everyone is related by birth or marriage. Along with Lesley and Susan they dream of achieving prestige in their village by competing in the local surfing championships and winning a spot on the national team. For both the men and the women it’s their only ticket out.

Lesley and Susan are sisters and accomplished surfers - yet as different as two waves breaking upon the shore. Lesley is the iconoclast. To gain acceptance to the all-male surf club, she cannily treads a social tightrope, alternately capitulating to the men or standing her ground, using the same maneuvering techniques she excels in when riding a wave. Susan on the other hand is more agreeable. As a mother who accepts her subservient role in the village, she prefers to await her fate like a prisoner awaiting a sentence. Yet each woman is instrumental in altering the culture’s groupthink.

In a particularly pivotal scene Andy tells the men that in order to compete the women must be allowed in the club and become equal participants. Despite centuries of culturally sanctioned male dominance, they must learn to sublimate their egos and accept the women as equals. An even greater challenge than compromise is the simple act of getting along with each other as clan rivalries flare up among the men and personal setbacks threaten to derail their hopes of winning a spot on the team.

In Splinters Pesce brings to the screen an intimate and emotional portrait of a culture tragically trapped between innocence and violence. By showing how surfing can serve as a catalyst for social change, the film proves the axiom that society can only advance when every citizen is inherently invested in its future success.

We spoke with Adam about the experience of filming in Papa New Guinea:

ICTMN: Before using a California-style surfboard, how long ago had the people of Papua New Guinea been surfing?

Adam Pesce - The elders told me that as long as they can remember they were belly surfing on broken pieces of their dugout canoes.

What attracted you to make a film on surfing involving indigenous people?

AP - It was a mix of several interests I had. I grew up surfing in CA where I was studying international relations and had an interest in travel. I decided to go explore in Vanimo. I was definitely interested in the Western values associated with the surfboard and how they would mesh with local traditions. I was curious as to what the dialogue would be.

To your knowledge when did they begin to stand up on a board?

AP - When the surfboard was left in PNG is when they first transitioned from belly boarding to stand up.

When you began shooting in PNG were you surprised by the strict traditions still practiced there?

AP - I didn’t know how ingrained these traditions were going to be and once I was on the ground there were these walls they put up. I saw women butting up against them and these women were definitely the trailblazers.

Were you ever afraid for yourself?

AP - I definitely was afraid for myself. The threat of violence was always there. Things can always turn on a dime.

Have you gone back to show the film yet?

AP - I’m looking forward to bringing the film to Vanimo and showing it to the people and planning an event around it. There’s talk of bringing it to the championship WQS [World Qualifying Series] surfing event in Vanimo in the coming year. However Andy and Ezekiel [one of the surfers] were able to make it to NY and see it at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

How did it affect them?

AP - It was an overwhelming experience for Ezekiel who just 36 hours earlier was in Vanimo Village. And then he ended up in New York doing a press event at the film he had starred in and never seen. I was very concerned that he might not like the film or how he was being portrayed or that it would be inaccurate in his mind. In PNG men will hold hands as they talk or walk around the village, so we held hands throughout the screening and after the credits he turned to me and said, “thank you.” It was a very special moment knowing that he enjoyed the film.

Did you ever speak with him about the male/female relationships and how their society could change as a result of your film?

AP - I didn’t have that conversation with Ezekiel, but I did speak to Andy at length following the screening of the film and he was really taken aback with the seriousness of the way surfing could really elevate the status of women in PNG. And I know he is doing his best to make sure that women have access to surfboards and have opportunities to compete and travel.

I would like to add that I’m looking to collaborate with a domestic violence shelter in Vanimo where people will be able to contribute to a place for women seeking legal aid and physical refuge, and that the film will be screening at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival this spring in Melbourne, Australia.

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