In his second full-length documentary, High Water, surf journalist Dana Brown composes a love letter to Hawaii’s North Shore by chronicling the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing big wave competition. Home to the largest rideable waves on the planet and nicknamed “The Seven Mile Miracle," this stretch of sand is the place where legends are made; a natural Mecca for those who worship the sea and a place where one wave can change your life. The son of famed surf photographer and documentarian Bruce Brown, whose 1966 documentary The Endless Summer was the first to bring attention and awareness to surfing, Dana Brown grew up on beaches around the world, saturated in surf culture. Concerned that surfing has been eroded into a competitive sport and lucrative commodity, Brown was inspired to capture what he fears are the final glory days of a lifestyle choice rooted in love for the planet and a deep commitment to community.
Perhaps the most obvious difference in the changing surf landscape is the proliferation of female bodies on the North Shore, where the women’s pro-tour garners nearly as much attention as the men's, both in sponsorship and spectators. Brown relates this point via the development of women’s surf clothes, currently a billion dollar industry that was nonexistent twenty years ago. There is a loyalty among surfers that is unique to a competitive sports environment, and an absence of traditional social markers like race and gender. Surprisingly, all of the men interviewed by Brown were receptive and supportive of the growing participation of women, though the sport has been historically male dominated and testosterone fueled.
Local legend and infamous badass Sunny Garcia grew up on the North Shore, where surfing is a private and personal relationship to your environment and your community with distinct places of belonging. If you’re not getting your ass kicked by the ocean, you have just as good a chance getting it kicked on shore. The contrast is that these hyper-masculine bodies who punch each other’s lights out over a wave are the same bodies that channel the energy of the sea and navigate the movement of the most powerful waves on the planet.
The submission to and respect for something much larger than humanity is what makes Brown’s film as inspirational as it is educational. Interviews with surfers, lifeguards, photographers, parents, and craftsman all with their own personal anecdotes, mythical stories, and life philosophies form a collective voice paying homage to the supreme authority of the ocean. The most powerful example of this is illustrated by the response to the death of competitor Malik Joyeux, one of the best big wave riders of his generation. Taking to the water, friends, family, and competitors sit on their boards in a giant circle, splashing laughing and crying out “Malik” as a helicopter rains flowers from above.
Whether you’re a surfer, an ocean lover, or neither of the two, High Water is an emotional tribute to “meaningful meaninglessness” and a reminder of what awesome beauty exists in our own backyard.