Sunday, August 29, 2010

Movie with Abe: Highwater

Directed by Dana Brown
Released August 27, 2010

There’s a momentous culture built around surfing and the annual Triple Crown competition in Oahu. For those without the desire to stand on the beach and watch the contest or without the means to travel to Hawaii, “Highwater” provides an introduction to this world that has deep ties with honor, kinship, and Hawaiian culture. The film begins by wading in slowly to the story, and carefully and tactfully immerses viewers in this unparalleled experience of riding waves and living a lifestyle. It’s the kind of entry that only gradually becomes apparent, and by the end of the film it’s possible to comprehend (at least somewhat) and feel the excitement of this cool craft.

Director Dana Brown, who previously made another surfing film, “Step into Liquid,” composes “Highwater” in an oddly semi-linear way. The chronology of the competition is roughly followed, but each new event presents the opportunity for a new tangent, to profile an underdog competitor or mourn the tragic loss of a surfer in the midst of doing what he loved. It’s a somewhat dizzying experience because it feels like there’s so much to learn (and to remember). The cast of characters is enormously large, and many of the surfers are still nameless faces by the end of the film. Yet Brown has chosen to tackle a difficult and broad subject, and he pares down his findings admirably in a way that showcases what he finds to be the most worthwhile and compelling elements of the competition and the culture. It makes the experience more accessible, because it feels like the audience is being guided not by a professional but rather by an enthusiast parsing out the most significant and comprehensible details.

Those with an aversion to surfing shouldn’t fear too much when it comes to this film, since elongated shots of the athletes performing and perfecting their craft are recurring but infrequent. It’s the personalities of the surfers and their particular styles that interest Brown, and therefore serve as the attracting force for his audience. Even if the film doesn’t flood me with an overwhelming desire or drive to book a plane ticket to Hawaii to catch this event, it does help to provide a newly developed appreciation for this quasi-sport, quasi-art form, and that’s something I wasn’t expecting when I sat down to watch it. Movies that surprise you in any way deserve some commendation, and I’d consider this a pretty decent documentary.


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