A young woman in the act of adultery is dragged out of the local hotel by her disgusted family members. A gap-toothed ex-wife who's owed a hefty sum of alimony rubs her hands in glee as she talks about her scheme to land her deadbeat baby daddy behind bars. And a bunch of drunkards uncap beer bottles with their teeth and run out to a dirt road to harass oncoming traffic.
It sounds more like the makings of an episode of Jerry Springer than a surf movie, but Splinters, opening at O Cinema today, is, in fact, a documentary about the rise of the sacred sport in Vanimo, an isolated village on the north coast of Papua New Guinea.
The Endless Summer, this is not. Splinters goes beyond mere celebration of a sport that's already adored by so many around the world. It gives a panoramic view of circumscribed life in Vanimo. It exposes the reality of violent and sexist practices of its culture, and shows the obstacles -- often in the form of jealous and vindictive competitors -- that stand to block the only opportunity for escape available to its locals: nabbing a spot on Papua New Guinea's national surf team.
In Vanimo circa 2000, surfing is life. And we don't mean the way it is for stoner beach bums occasionally catching waves in Southern California. Vanimo has no paved roads, electricity, running water, or opportunity for formal education. Only one tenth of the village's adults have paying jobs. For food, most villagers survive on the pulp of swamp-growing sago trees, which they laboriously process into a gelatinous paste called saksak. Prospects here are dismal.
So when a visiting pilot left his surfboard in the village in the '80s, it was like the real-life equivalent of a Coke bottle falling from the sky in the 1981 comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy. The surfboard became a both a symbol of and a connection to the Western world, its values, its materialism, and its promise of a glamorous new life.
The film tracks the four months leading up to the national surf competition, and the face-off of Vanimo's two rival surf teams: Vanimo Surf Club, the island's first team, and Sunset Surf Club, nicknamed 3SC. The stakes are high. Each team competes for the title of Best Surf Club, two spots on the PNG national surf team, and the opportunity for sponsorship and training in Australia.
With so much at stake, the groups behave like opposing political parties, demanding the village's resources (mainly in the form of donated surfboards), holding elections, and debating policy changes like whether a woman should be allowed to be vice president of a club.
Women do surf alongside the men on each team, which adds further tension. Sisters Lesley and Susan compete against each other for
the women's title, and their controversial
participation in the sport sets them up for increased scrutiny from
family and even members of their own teams. Male surfers often snatch up donated surfboards before the women even get a
glimpse of them. When women surf,
"surfing becomes your man," laments "Boardman," Susan's husband, adding
that the sport makes women lazy because they're too tired to do work
after hitting the waves for hours.
Angelus, a handsome 27-year-old surfing for Sunset Surf Club, rules the Vanimo waves, and becomes one of the film's most memorable characters. His personal life brings the drama, with a history of starting, then abandoning a family before settling down with his current wife and kids. His ex-wife has not slipped quietly away, either, striving to ruin Angelus' chances at success in surfing and life in general.
Ezekiel, another standout surfer, is the younger brother of a former contender for a spot on the national team, and also the Sunset Surf Club's second-seeded surfer. His youthful arrogance and his discovery of alcohol, though, are points of concern for the 3SC coach, Steve.
But it's Coach Steve who really steals the show. His pensive, mirror-like eyes consider each situation with the deep concern of a solicitous parent. Dogged in his commitment to his team and its players, he tries to impart work ethic, positivity, and modern values (especially with regard to gender roles) to his club. In one scene, Steve speaks of his dream to make Vanimo an international tourist hub, all while single-handedly "mowing" the lawn with a machete at a surf camp of his invention as the sun sets. These shots paint him as perhaps the only person on the island motivated more by dreams of a better Vanimo than by his own selfish ambitions.
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In his director's statement, Adam Pesce describes his film not as a surf movie, but as "an experiment unfolding in a Petri dish." But we don't get to find out the results. How will surfing's influence ultimately affect Vanimo? Will the ways of the West, transported here by surf culture, brings a better life for the people of the village, or simply create a sense of discontent in its residents, now that they have a better idea of all the things they don't have?