April 20, 2017
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SF Surfer Girls Charge Hard in New Doc
by Jay Randy Gordon and Doniphan Blair
provides the classical shot of Bianca Valenti, San Francisco's queen of the big wave riders. photo: Sachi Cunningham
WHEN THE MONSTER SWELLS COME TO
Northern California every winter, it’s all about the men who ride mountains, an international coterie of testosterone-fueled daredevils able to do Mavericks, about a half-a-mile into the Pacific Ocean off of Pillar Point Harbor, Half Moon Bay, where a shallow spot creates a 25-foot break and double that on a big day—meaning you’re trying to ski down a viscous building ten stories high, just before it cuts you in half!
That was the way it was—until this year, when women were “invited.”
Actually, the competition's organizer,
Titans of Mavericks
, had to be compelled, there was a series of commission hearings and law suits, they filed for bankruptcy and this year's event was cancelled.
The women surfers are here to stay, however, and will be even stronger next year, when the contest resurfaces, hopefully.
Moreover, their story, and that of Northern California’s eclectic surf scene, is also here, nicely told in “It Ain’t Pretty”, a 70-minute documentary by Dayla Soul, a surfer herself, in her first foray into filmmaking. Shot by Soul and surfing photog/writer Sachi Cunningham, it is produced by Kathleen Egan.
As “It Ain’t Pretty” opens—with shot after shot of the women speeding down up to 20-foot waves (meaning 40-foot faces, since waves are measured by height above sea level but have troughs and peaks), with the track rocking The Mermen (San Francisco’s—if not the world's—best surf rock band) and with cut-aways to the women recalling their worst wipe-outs and death defiances—we realize this is not the softball of surfing (see the
Ocean Beach, San Francisco in the '60s. photo courtesy:
We soon meet Bianca Valenti, a Marin County resident, who started surfing as a kid and became a world-class “charger” (balls-to-the-wall surfer); Carol Schuldt, San Francisco's “Queen of the Beach,” who nurtured the surf scene starting in the late ‘40s; and dozens of other women surfers, exploring their diversity, history (via surf historian Sheri Crummer) and future, from going pro to empowering the next generation of girls.
“It Ain’t Pretty” seems like an odd title until you realize how hard it was for the women just to paddle out their first day into an all-male “lineup” (surfers waiting for a wave). On top of dirty looks, they tell of being insulted, spat upon and threatened, as well as ogled while changing into their wet suits.
Lineups should be first come, first serve, at least according to the
Surfer's Bill of Lefts and Rights
, but surfers are famous for being equal parts mystic as macho and lineups are notoriously territorial, involving local politics, etiquette and "vibe."
One of surf cultures many contributions to American slang, and popularized by the Beach Boys' 1966 hit "Good Vibrations", vibe refers to over-all feeling and, beyond that, the surfer's elevated sensibilities (for more beach vernacular, go
Quite a bit of vibe is captured in the closing tune, also called "It Ain't Pretty"' and written and performed by Mira Manickam. In addition to being very catchy, "It Ain't Pretty"' is revealed to be a standard summary of the surf out at Ocean Beach: big, mushy and cold, obliging full wet suits and hoodies (hardly sexy, save the changing part).
Regardless of the challenges, the Outer Bar Babes, as they call their group (though some disdain the "babe" part), respond: "BUT I'm going out anyway!"
Another "IAP" theme is how the women met, made friends and supported each other, especially in big surf, starting at San Francisco's great but little-known break, Kelly’s Cove. At the north end of Ocean Beach, near the famous Cliff House Restaurant, it had a reputation for big, ugly surf and lineups of equally irascible Kelly's Boys.
Ironically, the break at Kelly's is often too far out—hence, the Outer Bar part of the moniker—to be easily viewed and few people knew San Francisco had much of a surf scene until 1992.
That was when the New Yorker published a two-part article, "
Playing Doc's Games
" by Pulitzer prize-winner William Finnegan, revealing the exploits of physician-wildman Doc (Mark Renneker) and how he surfed between the tankers and yachts on a bizarre break in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. Named the Potato Patch, Surfline.com describes it as “a minefield of shifting, throwing peaks extending from a couple hundred yards off shore all the way to the horizon.”
Doc isn’t mentioned in “It Ain't Pretty” but the film updates the local story, replete with a few old time dudes, some recalling how amazed they were when they first saw women paddling out into "triple overhead," which is about life and death, not just fun rides, others insisting the women were still not skilled enough to compete with men.
“It Ain't Pretty” premiered at SF Chinatown's Great Star Theater to a packed house and standing ovation at the 2016 DOCfest and went on to play 30 plus festivals, winning four Audience Awards at the Hawaii International and Santa Cruz Surf Film Festival (2016) among others, see the movie's
Dayla Soul (far left), director of 'It Aint' Pretty', presents to the 2016 Docfest in San Francisco with a bunch of young women from Brown Girl Surf and The Wahine Project. photo: R. Gordon
Soul grew up surfing the North Shore of Kauai, Hawaii, and began filming in March, 2013. A member of the Women's Surf Institute and an advocate for the Women's Big Wave World Tour, she organized eight major benefits for her film and her photography has appeared on CBS, ABC and Comcast and across San Francisco media.
“There were a few spots where the locals really hassled me,” Soul told me, when we met at a café near Ocean Beach. “Mostly guys would say things like ‘No cameras!’ ‘No filming here!’
"I knew it was less about me filming and more about this strange, dominating, territorial ownership locals try to impose,” as in all things surfing.
In fact, women surfers would get dissed no matter what they did. "If a guy 'drops in' on another guy [accidentally surfing down on top of them], they kind of head nod," one says in the film. "I apologize, go over and talk to them and sometimes I get more flack."
“Often times, the surf culture exploits the narrative that is easiest to sell the magazines,” Soul explained, rolling her eyes. “It does not tend to highlight diversity, but male dominance. It gets tiring.”
Nevertheless, “In the film I try to be neutral” and Soul does include remarks like: "The guys around here are so awesome. They always have an extra eye out for us on those bigger days. We do have good men supporting us."
In the end, however, “We need to break down this whole idea of sexualizing everything,” opines surfer Rebecca Sandidge, referring to the thong-clad women and close-ups of butt cheeks which “IAP” lampoons in a funny montage and are still ubiquitous across surf media.
“There’s nothing sexual when I am out there surfing,” Sandidge exclaims. “I am just getting rad!”
In addition to Valenti and Sandidge, the Outer Bar Babes include Monique Kitamura, Beth Price Jeffris, Savannah Shaughnessy, Anna Wankel, Sarah Martins, Rebecca Wunderlich and Suzie Yang, among others. One scene has almost fifty wet-suited women racing to the water, boards in hand. They work in fields ranging from dentist and firefighter to teacher and journalist, but also pro surfer.
If getting accepted as more than a beach bunny is hard, going pro is daunting. This becomes evident as the film follows its nominal star, Bianca Valenti, into confrontations on various fronts, even as she remains "stoked," the surfer's joyful, go-for-it philosophy.
"We want to promote our sport based on people's skill, not their sexuality," explains Valenti, who is sponsored by Play Bigger, a marketing firm, and the not-for-profit Super Sessions. Another time she notes: "If you get scared, don't let that stop you—you'll regret it!"
Some of the members of The Wahine Project. photo courtesy: D. Ybarra
OBB also includes women of color, contradicting the overwhelming white patina of most surf stories. Indeed, the film features a fascinating montage on Farhana Huq, a founder of the Oakland group
Brown Girl Surf
, who has taught surfing to women in Asia where they sometimes paddle out in burkas. Then there’s Monterey's
The Wahine Project
and Cori Schumacher's Inspire Initiative helping girls build skills and a sense of mastery.
“Brown Girl Surf is AMAZING!" Valenti wrote me by email. "I love how these amazing organizations serve and strengthen our beautiful community by promoting diversity and taking care of the earth.”
“I met Dayla [Soul] pretty early on in the film's progress,” I was told by hip-hop artist Mira Manickam, who also helped found Brown Girl Surf. Since she recently completed a series of girl-power, surf raps, Soul invited her to create the "It Ain't Pretty" theme song, where she was backed by the band Piracy.
“Dayla has been incredibly generous in encouraging us to use ‘It Ain't Pretty’ as a platform to tell our stories and raise money for Brown Girl Surf," Manickam added. "We've been involved in three screenings.”
The gospel of surf extends from the environment and staying healthy to social justice and actual religion. Indeed, surfing's visionary aspect—one human engaging Mother Nature—sits center-most in the minds of many of the women, who use phrases like "it forces you to be fully present" or "the Church of Surf."
"[Surfing] might inspire people to live in a more spiritual way," notes Kelly's Cove pioneer Carol Schuldt, and "not all this computer shit."
For first-time filmmaker Soul, the three years of production became its own mystical quest and death-defying adventure, especially getting the gnarly surf shots.
“In the beginning, I took a GoPro [mini-camera] out to film the girls on couple of solid Ocean Beach days," she told me. "It was maybe 8-10 foot, long-period swells [bigger, faster wave sets], fairly easy to get into the lineup."
"But when the [biggest] sets rolled through, I took couple on the head. They were scary moments for me. I really wasn't prepared—they were definitely the biggest waves I had been out in."
“I realized that I needed to stay on land to get the shots I needed and to hire a professional in the water [Sachi Cunningham]. It was simply just safer for me! It did, however, create a deeper respect for the girls who charge at Ocean Beach,” Soul concluded, with a grin.
The young women from The Wahine Project prepare to surf Ocean Beach, San Francisco, circa 2012. photo courtesy: TWP
Shooting Mavericks was no picnic either, as you might imagine. Although there are generally support vessels out at the break, it can be very large and lethal. Two pros drowned at Mavericks in recent memory, including the Hawaiian Sion Milosky in 2011, although not during the competition.
“On the days the girls would paddle out to Mavericks, we had very little lead time to prepare," Soul said. "I would get a call—sometimes just the day before—that there might be a swell hitting. So I would start calling the boats, my aerial guy, [and the] jet skis with the water camera crew.”
“We would all arrive at 5 am in Half Moon Bay—in the dark! If shooting by land, we had to carry heavy equipment almost a mile out to the beach [and] climb a pretty steep cliff in the dark to snag a good spot. On any big swell at Mavs, there could be 30 photogs on the cliff. Then the fog would start to burn off and we could see 30-footers [60 foot faces] on the horizon.”
“On one hand, this is a surf movie with jaw-dropping footage of top big-wave surfers,” I was told by the film's editor, Jody Banks, a man who joined Soul's team two years ago and has put in some 2,000 hours. “On the other hand, it’s a film with a message.”
“The continuing fetishization of beach-bunny stereotypes by the media and sponsors [is] frustrating," agrees Banks, a writer, cinematographer and editor, who lives near Ocean Beach and knows the scene. "It’s the bravery and inner strength of these women that will inspire other women.”
In fact, young girls and teens have been thrilled to see “It Ain’t Pretty” in festivals around the world. Since sponsors want to capture that demographic, “that’s even more reason to dump the sexist stereotyping and make these women media heroes as well as sports heroes,” Banks insisted.
Precisely for that reason, this year's Titans of Mavericks was highly anticipated and is the perfect showcase for the new surf scene emerging out of Northern California.
With the women increasingly vocal and eager to prove themselves, the California Coastal Commission decided the time had come to open up the contest, forcing the hand of Titans of Mavericks and its holding company, the oddly-named Cartel Management. Out of nearby Capitola, Cartel is owned by Griffin Guess, who is married to swimsuit model Marissa Miller.
If Titans hadn't been cancelled this year, the women would have had their own separate heat, featuring the top international female surfers: Sarah Gerhardt from Santa Cruz, who was the first woman to surf Mavericks in 2000; the Hawaiians Paige Alms and Keala Kennelly; the Brazilian Andrea Moller; and “It Ain't Pretty” protagonist Shaughnessy (out of Santa Cruz).
Valenti, however, was excluded, an odd turn of events given she's one of the best-trained and most daring female surfers around. And she has surfed Mavericks, only 30 miles south of San Francisco, for over a decade.
"Bianca [Valenti] has been prejudiced against because she spoke out to the media about the organizers," said Sabrina Brennan.
Women surfers bust out of the lineup at Mavericks, in a shot from 'It Ain't Pretty'. photo courtesy: D. Soul
Brennan, who appears briefly in "IAP", is a commissioner for the San Mateo County Harbor District, which oversees Mavericks. She also lives on the hills overlooking Mavericks, is married to a woman surfer, and is involved with Valenti in
Committee for Equity in Women's Surfing
"In 2016, when they came to the Coastal Commission, the Cartel people were going around saying that if Bianca spoke, there would be consequences," Brennan told me by phone recently.
"As soon as she spoke, they announced she would be punished—we were all just sickened," Brennan continued. "The funny thing was, what she said was really benign. She is always really positive with her messaging."
"[Valenti] has always faced this because she is not the blonde, blued-eyed stereotype," Brennan said. "It is really weird. She doesn't complain. She realizes that she is forced to take on this leadership role as the local big wave [woman] surfer," standing up to the powers-that-be, both culturally and politically.
"It is not a gender thing, it is a performance thing," explained Jeff Clark, an old-time, big wave surfer and founder of Titans, in a shot from "IAP", "the women just aren't there yet." Speaking to a NY Times reporter, Clark also attacked the event's current organizers and their lack of "commitment to this sacred place in their hearts and souls,” (see
Indeed, Titans and Cartel are often in some form of court, a lot of late. Unrelated to Titans, Cartel lost a $1 million in 2016 lawsuit filed by a Houston-based company for failing to promote their sunless tanning and related products in Southern California. At the end of January, 2017, their only sponsor, Red Bull Media, which provided the prize money, took them to court seeking $400,000. A week later, Cartel filed for bankruptcy.
Ironically, their opposition to women surfers, while a drag in real life, could have played well in a National Geographic-style, "great struggle" documentary. In this edit, "It Ain't Pretty" would focus even more on Valenti, how she overcame gnarled, old surfer dudes (with a host of their own problems, humanizing them), opened a big wave competition on her home turf to women, and then, in the film's thrilling conclusion, did well in it.
Alas, that drama unfolded largely after principal photography. Still, “It Ain’t Pretty” shows Valenti training like a demon, pushing her gal pals into ever wilder surf and bravely revealing her personal feelings, making for some great cinema.
Shooting herself with the now-ubiquitous GoPro camera, we watch Valenti driving, broke and lonely, ruminating on her long, slow slog to the summit of surfing. Elsewhere, we see her bested in competition but exhibiting superb sportspersonship.
“I met Bianca at the Supergirl Pro [competition, 2014] ," I was told by Dionne Ybarra, a founder/director of The Wahine Project (see her
"I watched the heat with Dayla [who was filming] when Bianca knew she was out of the competition. My husband happened to walk up just as it was over. Bianca didn't need to introduce herself at that moment—but she did.”
Valenti surfs the living daylights out of Cloudbreak, Fiji. photo courtesy: B. Valenti
“Man, at that moment, my respect for Bianca went through the roof. It was rad sportsmanship,” especially given Valenti's mother earlier remarks about a youthful Bianca and her tendency to angry outbursts.
“This film has given my girls a place and that, in a way, further inspires their own stories," added Ybarra, who hails from a Hispanic neighborhood in East Salinas, along with most of her students. "For ladies of mixed color, it validates what we're doing."
Of course, women-of-color surfers have always been there, starting with the mythical Kelea, a Hawaiian princess famed for extraordinary abilities on the great waves.
After its revival in the early 20th century, surfing was popularized by the SoCal culture colonizing the world, notably through the movie "Gidget" (1959) and the Beach Boys hit, "Surfin'" (1961). The professional surfer and mystical, mother-nature mastering hero arrived a decade later.
The romantic allure of California golden girls was also instrumental, although many were already paddling out and conquering the waves, as "IAP" indicates in its shot of old surf mag spreads.
Given its global popularity and recent acceptance as an Olympic sport, starting in Tokyo, in 2020, surfing should be equally available to women as to men. Around a quarter of American surfers are women, a significant increase over the past 50 years.
Nevertheless, it was only in 2003 that Marge Calhoun, one of the first women hot-goggers was finally inducted into the Surfing Hall of Fame. An all-male organizations like the Big Wave World Tour finally included women in 2013.
"There is an opportunity to re-envision what the Mavericks event should be," Commissioner Brennan elaborated in our phone conversation. "It has been plagued with so many challenges over the last 17 years, so I am interested in hearing what the vision is. The athletes know better than anyone."
Given the majesty and danger of a Mavericks meet, including women is essential, both as part of the Northern California ethos and of the needed rebranding of surf culture, which has been overshadowed for decades by skateboard culture. It is also critical for the women like Valenti to get sponsors and go pro.
One idea is to have a film festival associated with Mavericks, given Powerlines Productions already releases an annual compilation of the competition, see
Unfortunately, "the bankruptcy could tie-up [the contest] for a couple years," Brennan said. "I have been told by athletes that if Griffin [of Cartel] continues to try to control the event, people will boycott. I don't think his brand has much credibility at this point."
Ironically, Valenti, who is is rather media savvy, would be the perfect partner sports hero for such an endeavor. "Since we are the ones risking our lives," Valenti notes, "why should we give [others] the content?"
An Outer Bar Babe surfing a smallish but spectacular break, Land Barrel, Fort Point, directly beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. photo: R. Gordon
In fact, Valenti has long loved surf movies, even "Soul Surfer" (2011), "a tear jerker [but] big respect and deeply inspired by Bethany [Hamilton].” Her all time favorite? The definitive surf film, "Endless Summer" (1968): "I watched it almost every single day as a kid and it made me want to travel the world and go surfing and explore.”
“I met Dayla [Soul, the director] in the parking lot at Sloat at Ocean Beach one day," Valenti told me from Portugal, where I finally caught up with her by email and she was surfing a great break, although her all-time favorite surf-country is Fiji.
"[Soul] told me what she was beginning to create and I said, 'Let's do this. Let's make it awesome!' It was incredible to watch her take care of business, stay focused, execute and complete, all the while having fun.”
“It is an inspiring and radical film," Valenti said, which "instills the inspiration and motivation that any girl and boy, women and men, black, white, fat, skinny, etc., can do anything. ANYTHING is possible!”
"There were great moments in the editing room," recalled Banks, who started editing as Soul "was still shooting some breaking events, notably when the California Coastal Commission ruled that Mavericks would have to include women."
"The story is ongoing. We are hoping the release of the film will spark interest in funding a sequel that celebrates the barriers they face.”
This coming October, Valenti will again compete at the Jaws contest on Maui's North Shore, which only opened to women last year, in 2016. “The movement is happening. We've created a template for change,” she said, “creating more competitive opportunities for women in big wave surfing.”
Indeed, Valenti and her compatriots are having global influence, inspiring girls and young women to reach for new heights and challenges, including beyond the waves, and heralding the next round of Cali surf culture—Northern and female this time.
The film is on
, Amazon Video, GooglePlay, Comcast Xfinity and DirecTV, with distribution in the works for China and Iran by
. There are also plans for an international school tour.
Asked for parting thoughts, Valenti replied: “Be brave! Be bold! Have fun! Play bigger!!!”
Jay Randy Gordon
is The MARINsider, the author of '
' and the founder of
and can be reached
Posted on Apr 06, 2017 - 06:59 AM