What A Tragic Waste, Or Those Were The Fucken Days?
Review: Biarritz Surf Gang is a wonderful film.
When it comes to rough and ready surf communes, the kinda hoods where crossing the wrong path might result in a knuckle sandwich, or worse, perhaps places like Maroubra, Wai’anae, Arporador come to mind.
Biarritz, France? Less so.
The glitzy seaside resort appears so cute from any angle it might resemble a Wes Anderson mood board. Where handsome locals with strong noses and sensitive palettes drink expensive hot chocolates and the most melt in the mouth Viennoise in surfdom. Where l’Hôtel Grand Palais, former imperial residence of Napoleon III and Eugénie is but one of many architectural delights that make up the hilly, boutique lined narrow streets. Where even the footbridge to the Virgin Rock beauty spot, where young love exhales lustily in its partner’s earlobe with each slow orange sundown, was designed by Gustave Eiffel, tower guy.
Where, between photogenic outcroppings of sandstone cliff that shelter little peelers from the brunt of Biscay swells, the Atlantic’s singularly sparkly shimmer is reflected in the twinkly toe work of influencers who curate cross step chic atop exorbitantly priced logs in all next season’s tints.
But at the start of the 1980’s, as the first native surf community had risen from the ground broken by longboard era uncles and Anglophone transplants of the ‘60s and ‘70s, things were considerably more gritty. A rowdy rabble of beak nosed shortboard slashing ne’erdowells decided to take control of their little stretch of sand at La Grande Plage, fuelled by booze, drugs, testosterone, and a bit of good old fashioned xenophobia.
The latter was mainly aimed at the Australians, who seemed to be showing up in ever increasing numbers with the best boards, weed, pick up lines and crucially, a strong sense of lineup entitlement. There to confront them, running amok across a territory that stretched from the car park behind the beach and out through the swash zone was a rag tag mob of exuberant young local surfers with blond highlights, hoop earrings, crooked teeth, and dayglo tubesuits.
In Biarritz Surf Gang, a film written and directed by two surfers born and raised in the town, Pierre Denoyel and Nathan Curren, their story is brilliantly told in an entertaining romp of levity, gravity, and retro candour.
Nathan, whose famous dad Tom was a resident in SW France in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when Nathan was born, told STAB, “We heard all the stories from the Grande Plage lot when we were growing up, they were the stuff of legend. The story is set in SW France in the ‘80s but the themes are pretty universal, it could be anywhere in the surf world really. It was a sketchy scene at the beach back then; drug dealers, bikers, surfers… Grande Plage was a beach with a hardcore edge to it, nothing like today. There were plenty of gnarly stories we had on tape that the lawyers told us we couldn’t put in the film, but we still had plenty to work with.”
And while BSG’s central premise is common to much of the surf world, it’s the distinctly French flavours that lend it particular charm. The film’s main, rosé guzzling characters’ favourite pastime was thinking up new and ever more flamboyant ways of getting booted out of the French national surf team. Sentences ranged from 5 year bans to lifetime expulsions for a range of offences like urinating on the judges, smashing up restaurants and being chased away at gunpoint, burning all the furniture in their rental accommodation in Australia at the Worlds event, ever taunting the stiff grey administrators that ran French surfing by openly chuffing clouds of spliff smoke in their general direction.
Characters include gang leader Sammy, a boozy, well built tough guy with a particular hatred for Antipode interlopers; a wizened pair of gack n’ smack casualties, Nabo & Kikette, sunken cheeked and mournful eyed, who recount long tailed addiction struggles; and Michel Larronde, who sensing the coming drug ugliness fled to Maui, opened a French restaurant, and became first Euro to tow Peahi, and dad of current local standout Tyler.
“We just wanted to capture rawness in the storytelling, the crew we interviewed were all keen to speak openly, about the good and the bad,” explains Nathan. Clear eyed recollections flesh out the narrative, told somewhere between the very disparate emotions of contrition, and classic Gallic shruggery. The film’s animated sequences are a particular highlight, one PacMan style scene sees Nabo’s head munching through reefer, pills, lines, and syringes as a hapless batch of Gendarmes chase him, is fabulous.
Of course, not everyone remembers the mob on quite such reverential terms, or even vaguely fondly. “I wouldn’t call them a gang” says one former World Tour surfer who literally butted heads with them on numerous occasions, “Just a bunch of wankers who couldn’t fight, or do a turn. They were like ‘This is our beach.’ We were like, ‘You can keep it, it’s fucken shithouse.’”
Nothing like a three decade grudge to remind you that the rancour was real.
While surf cinema’s fetishisation of the halcyon days of yore often involve aloha shirted, misty eyed recollections of yesteryear at traditional power bases in Hawaii, Oz, or California, often blighted by endless surfboard design tropes and tired, reheated anecdotes, Denoyel and Curren have brought genuinely fresh material to a well worn genre. Decolonising the Anglophone world’s stranglehold on surf history can surely only enrich the culture, too, making you wonder how many other chateau skylined semi-secret Dogtowns are out there, with nary a hint of ‘dude’ or ‘gnarly’ in their oral tradition.
“It took us five years to make, and you don’t get rich off making surf documentaries, we haven’t made any money off it. But the feedback has been great, and we’re honoured STAB are running it,” says Nathan, “Hope people enjoy it.”
As with any good characterisation, rather than the good goodies and bad baddies of kid’s books, it’s the nuanced portrayals that question the viewer precisely where their sympathies lie that make the best storytellers. Which ultimately brings us to Nabo, the film’s narrator. Painfully thin, aged beyond his years, he recalls the occasion of being kicked out of the French team for good in his prime, and embarking on “A month long acid trip” where he ripped “snowy bongs” each morning before surfing 5 hour sessions, every day.
What a tragic waste / those were the fucken days.
Biarritz Surf Gang aired on Stab Premium for a weekend in July, 2021. The film is now available for purchase on a variety Video On-Demand services including YouTube, here. Note: It will give you the option to watch the film with subtitles.
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