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Waveriders
featuring: Cillian Murphy (narrator)

director: Joel Conroy

77 minutes (PG) 2008
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Element DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
What makes a good documentary? The acid test for me is how well it can appeal to a wider audience, regardless of its particular subject matter. That, I hope, goes some way to explaining why I volunteered to review a documentary about surfing when I'm not actually interested in surfing. And I'm pleased to say that Waveriders kept me gripped throughout.

There are two things we might reasonably expect to see in any surfing documentary: footage of surfing, and interviews with surfers. Waveriders does not disappoint: the surfing itself is often breathtaking - what particularly struck me were the shots of one tiny human figure against the background of an enormous wave. Stunningly photographed, and often nicely contrasted with the rugged Irish landscape (the film has a special focus on the development and practice of surfing in Ireland). The interviewees are, without exception, engaging and articulate, and their love of their sport shines through.

But 77 minutes of this alone would try the patience of anyone who wasn't a surfing enthusiast. What makes Waveriders of greater general interest is its carefully constructed history of surfing. This isn't a 'gosh, did you know' trivia kind of history, but a very human history that brings the sport to life through the stories of its people. We meet some remarkable characters, notably George Freeth, the Irish-Hawaiian who, more-or-less single-handedly, revived the ancient art of surfing in the modern age; invented the practices of modern life-guarding; and died of influenza in 1919, tragically young. Freeth seems to have become almost a semi-legendary figure in the surfing world since then.

We also see how small, innocent decisions can have a lasting impact on history. In the early 1970s, Californian surfers Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson took a trip to South America to try out the surf, and sent back photos and articles to be published in the surfing magazines. They continued to travel the world doing this, inadvertently inspiring other surfers to start exploring the waves elsewhere - and transforming the sport in the process.

Reading this back, it sounds a little dry; but that's not how it comes across on screen. Waveriders takes the specifics of surfing and makes them relevant - makes them personal, shows us why they matter to people. We've all, I'm sure, felt an intense passion for an interest of some sort; and we can use feelings like that as a bridge into the film. But the narrative thread of Waveriders makes that job all the easier; by the time we reach the end, and surfing in present-day Ireland, we care - because we have become invested in that world.

There's just one thing which I felt, with hindsight, was missing from Waveriders. Rightly or wrongly, I gain the impression from the film that surfing is a very male-dominated world. The only female surfer in the movie is four times Irish champ Easkey Britton, and she is interviewed only briefly. I think the film could have benefited from touching more on that gender dimension. Quibbles aside, though, Waveriders is an interesting, well-made documentary which is worth seeing, whether you're into surfing or not.

DVD extras: additional surfing footage, extended interviews with contributors, a theatrical trailer, and photo gallery.
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