How to make a Surf Documentary, with Michael Oblowitz
Interview by Ali Klinkenberg Michael Oblowitz is the director of the best surf documentary you’ve never seen. Sea of Darkness is about the pioneers of Indonesian surf travel in the 1970’s, who funded their tube time by smuggling large quantities of narcotics through the Archipelago. The film was released, and then vanished; pulled from shelves and online retailers. […]
Interview by Ali Klinkenberg
Michael Oblowitz is the director of the best surf documentary you’ve never seen. Sea of Darkness is about the pioneers of Indonesian surf travel in the 1970’s, who funded their tube time by smuggling large quantities of narcotics through the Archipelago. The film was released, and then vanished; pulled from shelves and online retailers. Too pointy, too many people involved (although you may now get to see it, thanks to distributer Goldcrest Films.) Oblowitz has now delved into another of surfing’s great mysteries: The Fletchers! The Nathan Fletcher biopic, Heavy Water, has just premiered under the SAVAGE CINEMA section of the San Sebastián film festival, and it seemed the perfect time to quiz Mr Oblowitz on the pitfalls of making documentaries about surfing’s daring characters, whose lives are often censored thanks to endorsement deals and reputations.
South African director Michael Oblowitz.
Stab: How do you make a hard-hitting documentary without ruining anyone’s life?
Oblowitz: It’s not easy and it was never my nor Carter’s (co-producer Carter Slade) intention to ruin anyone’s life. We are not trying to sensationalise nor make a National Enquirer type of film that’s lurid and tabloid in its nature. Nathan Fletcher is an iconic character and an archetypical survivor. We let the movie evolve organically out of the narrative Nathan told us. Frankly, Nathan’s story was so captivating and honest and authentic and sincere we didn’t really envision anything provocative there. Also, whenever I do these films I try to engage as many of the parties as will talk to me to be sensitive to their own narrative. Unfortunately sometimes it appears that we’re taking a penalty kick at goal posts that keep moving.
Is it easier to make a posthumous documentary? No, it’s definitely not easier. I would rather work with characters that can answer directly to my story than have to infer the narrative from events and characters that cannot talk for themselves. Unfortunately, living and dying are part of the same equation. As Bob Dylan wrote: “Everyone not busy being born is busy dying.”
Heavy Water indeed. Photo by Brian Bielmann
Is it sex and drugs that put bums on seats? It’s sex and drugs that knock people out on their asses! I don’t think anything specific makes a great, successful movie. There is no formula other than authentic emotion, drama and suspense, and not necessarily in that order.
What are the greatest pitfalls of making surf documentaries? Lack of real financing. I think the sport of surfing is filled with drama and emotion, the pitfall is having surfing perpetuate its own narrative. There seems to be more investment in an imaginary narrative then in a real one. The real ones are the great stories that will capture the general public.
How close do you have to be with the subject to make an amazing documentary? Not necessarily close, but able to connect authentically. It’s like working with actors – if the actors and director connect, you get great, enduring performances. Even though you may never see them again after the project is through.
How much do you really know about Nathan Fletcher?
What’s the best biopic you’ve seen? There’s a new film on the life of Nina Simone that is truly revelatory in its approach to the subject. It’s called What Happened Miss Simone, and it’s made with the co-operation of her surviving daughter. It leaves no stone unturned. It’s so vulnerable in its honesty, but so generous at the same time. I also love Richard Leacock and Don Pennebaker’s Cocksucker Blues, a suppressed documentary about the Rolling Stones’ 1970-something US tour and their doco Don’t Look Back, about the young Bob Dylan.
How do you gain the trust of your audience? (According to co-producer Carter Slade:) By being honest. By staying as true to the characters and their story as you can.
Is important to let the audience know where the piece is coming from? Is it objective? It depends. Different strategies for different narratives. Take Kurasawa’s Rashamon; he tells the same story from each character’s different perspective.
Sum up heavy water in one sentence… Heavy Water – it’s deeper than you think.
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