The founder of Cali surf culture Tom Blake described catching a wave as a form of worship; giving praise in “the blessed church of the open sky.” It’s a metaphor that gets the big screen treatment in two radically different new surfing films, which pay homage to the sport at opposite ends of the world.
Set in surf culture around Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka, The Church of the Open Sky – which takes its title directly from Blake’s description – is surf as religious experience. In the visually poetic film, Australian director Nathan Oldfield takes us to lush warm water locations of heart breaking sunsets, incredible wildlife and dreamy beach life.
“Tom Blake’s phrase always stuck with me over the years,” says the filmmaker, who also photographs for Patagonia. “I like the idea of surfing as ‘Church’ because for me surfing is much deeper than a physical activity. I’ve always felt that surfing is an internal, metaphysical experience.”
Poles apart from this classic looking surf experience – but no less big screen in scope – Perilous Sea follows surfers as they try to catch a wave in the North Atlantic. The film from Mike Bromley and Ryan Meichtry locates itself in less balmy climes where weather beaten fishermen, northern lights and wildly cold waters are the order of the day. “We wanted to try and make a surf film with a different vibe completely. No palm trees and 5mm wetsuits,” Bromley, a native of Nova Scotia, says.
Perilous Seas sets out to discover the surf in Iceland, Ireland and the Canadian Maritime provinces. Uniting all three, apart from challenging surf conditions, is a strong maritime tradition. The filmmakers find their story in the local fishing communities they encounter as well as the epic landscapes and bold undertakings on the sea. “All of the history in the North Atlantic made it a bit easier to stir up ideas of characters that have been on the sea a lot longer than surfers,” says co director Bromley.
For all its iconic surf imagery, Church of the Open Sky is not simply sun-baked gloss. Oldfield delves into surfers’ stories of addiction and loss, letting the narrative grow organically as he goes. “I just like to go to a place, meet the people, to see what unfolds,” he says, “and then to see what kinds of stories I may be able to tell.”
Although the two films, which play at the London Surf film festival this weekend, could not seem further apart visually, an underlying thread unites them. LA0-based Meichtry calls it the sense of adventure. Oldfield talks about the sense of oneness, even though the action takes place in different locations, highlighting many different lives.
“It’s a kind of joy and gratitude for a surfing life,” he says, “how surfing upholds us and nourishes us through life’s seasons. Surfers call that feeling ‘stoke.’ I think it’s the glue that holds a lot of surf films together.”
The other thing that unites all surfers is the lifestyle. So Church of the Open Sky is as much as advert for beach times and sun worshipping as it is catching the perfect wave. Even the most challenging parts of a surfer’s daily grind, can have its upsides as the team behind Perilous Sea discovered. “The biggest logistical issue with filming in the North Atlantic is by far the weather,” says Meichtry. “It’s unpredictable and relentless; when conditions are unfavorable the only option is to sit in a pub and drink until conditions improve. We did a lot of drinking.”
londonsurffilmfestival.com is at Regent Street Cinema 19 – 21 October