For a sport with roots that run centuries deep, surfing has been comically misunderstood by mainstream pop culture. It could be the fault of surfers themselves, who, when asked to describe the basic pursuit of riding waves, will often devolve into the babble of a religious zealot. Or it could be the simple fact that, while surfing is well-known around the world today, it’s still only available to a lucky few. Surf films are often no less inaccessible—they tend to be made by surfers, leading to work that is more navel-gazing than probing.
So when the World Surf League, pro surfing’s governing body, announced in 2019 that it had created a content division called WSL Studios “to connect with established and up-and-coming filmmakers, award-winning and innovative new producers, as well as experienced production companies,” there was cautious hope that a new generation of surf filmography was on the horizon. However, there were doubts, because the WSL has long long been averse to supporting filmmakers and other outside media that might depict the league in any tint but rose.
WSL Studios’ first mainstream effort was The Ultimate Surfer, a competition-based reality show that debuted in 2021 and sought the kind of back-biting narrative made essential by Survivor. Instead, it ended up with a generally amiable cast of young pros, many of whom had been pals since their amateur days and were unwilling to appease producers’ appetite for drama. The series was a flop. Not long after, the curtains quietly closed on WSL Studios.
It appears, however, that the WSL has achieved some redemption with its recent involvement in Apple TV+’s Make or Break, a seven-part docuseries released in April that recounts the competitive and personal triumphs and travails of a group of women and men competing on the 2021 WSL Championship Tour. It features big names like world champions Kelly Slater and Stephanie Gilmore, as well as pro surfers who most casual fans have probably never heard of, like Morgan Cibilic and Leonardo Fioravanti.
While the project was done in partnership with the WSL, a “WSL Studios” logo is nowhere to be found, and this distance is a blessing. In the independent hands of Box to Box Films, a London-based production company led by Oscar-winning producer James Gay-Rees and BAFTA-nominated producer Paul Martin, Make or Break paints a refreshingly messy picture of professional surfing life.
Gay-Rees and Martin’s hit Netflix docuseries Formula 1: Drive to Survive was the model for Make or Break. In both, the key to success has been making an obscure sport relatable to a wider, nonexpert audience. How to do that? In the case of Make or Break, it meant bucking one of the cardinal rules of old-school surf journalism: pulling the lens away from the water. “It is not even about riding waves, exactly,” writes Matt Warshaw, a surfing historian and author of the Sunday Joint newsletter. “Make or Break is a reality show set within the grind and turmoil of the [World Tour], and as a viewer, to my eyes anyway, that grind and turmoil is bliss compared to the smiley brain-dead presentation we get from the WSL itself.”
For example, we learn that South African Tour rookie Matt McGillivray sometimes sleeps in his truck in order to have enough money to afford his dream job—the big paychecks only go to the Tour’s few top surfers. That American Sage Erickson, heretofore marketed by sponsors and the WSL as a delicate, unruffled soul, is capable of unleashing cutting verbal lashings on competitors who have pulled less than sportsmanlike maneuvers in a heat. (“I’m just playing the game,” a defiant Tatiana Weston-Webb later responds to the camera.) That Brazilian Filipe Toledo, who for the past few years has been overshadowed by two of his own countrymen and friends, has been battling depression. (And also that he is quite possibly pro surfing’s best dad.)
But the truest sign that Make or Break is something different, something better, comes when Yasmin Brunet, wife of three-time world champion and Brazilian icon Gabriel Medina, says how incredible it is that Medina was able to win a third world title after the year that he and Brunet had just endured. Instead of letting Brunet glaze over such a loaded statement, as would very well be the case in a WSL-led production, the interviewer stops Brunet and asks her to explain. No doubt it took Gay-Rees and Martin a few tries to crack the couple, but ultimately they did. (The revelations, about recently discovered secrets in Medina’s family, as well as growing tension between Medina and Brunet, also nicely tee up a second season, which has already been cleared for production.)
Waterman doesn’t hesitate to remind viewers that Duke Kahanamoku’s acceptance among white, Western cultures around the world didn’t come without episodes of prejudice.
Luckily, Make or Break isn’t the only surf filmmaking out there that’s finally exhibiting some journalistic rigor. Released last year, Waterman provides a detailed—albeit at points snoozy—historical accounting of the life and legacy of Native Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, the five-time Olympic medalist who is considered the father of modern-day surfing. (In May it enjoyed a wider release, airing on PBS as part of its American Masters series.)
Both as an Olympic swimmer and later a Hollywood actor, the Duke, as he was known, has long been celebrated by the surfing community as the “ambassador of aloha.” It’s true that Kahanamoku became a beloved promotor of Hawaiian culture, surfing, and swimming around the globe. But it’s an incomplete description of his experience as a non-white athlete and entertainer in the early 20th century. While Waterman remains focused on Kahanamoku’s athletic talents and ability to spread the joy of water sports to countless cultures, it doesn’t hesitate to remind viewers that the Duke’s acceptance among white, Western cultures around the world didn’t come without episodes of prejudice.
In 1911, after word of a gifted Hawaiian swimmer reached mainland America, the Amateur Athletic Union arranged for a race to determine if Kahanamoku was as good as rumor had it. At Honolulu Harbor, Kahanamoku swam a 100-yard sprint in just a touch over 55 seconds, smashing the world record at the time. Despite his incredible performance, the AAU refused to accept the result and insisted he travel to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, of all places, for another race. It was on this trip that Kahanamoku first witnessed racial segregation, “the antithesis of aloha,” as the film’s narrator, actor Jason Mamoa, says. “As a man of color, whatever unease he felt, Duke likely kept it in his heart,” he continues, referring to the Hawaiian phrase Mahape a ale walaua—“Don’t talk, keep it in your heart.”
Facing cold water and competing in an indoor pool for the first time, Kahanamoku’s first swim ended in failure, but he soon rebounded, traveling in 1912 to Stockholm to compete in the Summer Olympics alongside Native American Olympian Jim Thorpe. Both men set records and proudly won gold for the country that had taken so much from their people.
Aside from telling the underappreciated story of the father of modern surfing, Waterman is also an invitation to future surf filmmakers to be unafraid of tackling the thornier cultural stories that abound in the globally popular sport. That’s exactly what Los Angeles–based filmmaker Corey McLean has accomplished in his new film Havana Libre, now streaming online on Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV. It’s about a group of Cuban surfers fighting to get their government to sanction surfing as an official sport.
In the wake of the Cuban refugee crisis of the 1980s and ’90s, the nation’s government essentially banned water activities as a way to dissuade people from fleeing. Apparently, police viewed surfboards as watercraft sufficient enough for escape. Over the course of many years, McLean follows a Cuban surfer named Frank, who, despite living in a country not known for having good waves (an unfair criticism, as McLean discovers), is a skilled athlete with dreams of representing Cuba in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, where surfing made its debut. While Frank chases his competitive hopes—including a risky trip to a contest in Peru—his friend Yaya works to build support for surfing in communities around Havana, in an effort to convince the Cuban government to sanction surfing.
It’s jarring to watch Make or Break and Havana Libre back-to-back. Hardly bankrolled like Formula One drivers, the WSL’s top competitors are nevertheless showered with free plane tickets, clothing, and enough new surfboards to smash one or two in anger after a bad contest result. Meanwhile, in Cuba, surfers like Frank and Yaya are scouring the beaches for foam pieces from the rafts of unsuccessful migrants to use for homemade surfboards. It’s heart-wrenching to see them obsessing over American surf magazines that folded years ago and to realize that they must devote huge amounts of their lives to scraping together the necessary materials to build a board that is destroyed without thought by another surfer, just because of a stroke of cultural fate.
But there is also beauty in this gulf, a kind of validation of surfing itself, proof that it’s a sport that reaches and transforms lives across the spectrum of human experience. (Despite his competitive ambitions, Frank, in fact, is leery of calling surfing a sport, preferring instead to think of it as an art.) So it’s nice to learn in the credits that Havana Libre was made with support from WSL Studios. While it produced some duds, clearly the initiative was able to help discover and support surf filmmakers creating stories with complexity and worth. Who will step in to keep this positive trend alive?