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Splinters – A Powerful Documentary by First Time Filmmaker Adam Pesce Features Indigenous Surfing in the Primitive Culture of Papua New Guinea

Jordan Wright
April 18, 2012
Special to Indian Country Today Media Network.

A good surfer must be in complete harmony with the vagaries of nature.   Surfing is a unique sport in that its skilled athletes must alternately strive to conquer and surrender and must be emboldened and yet chastened by the force and changeability of both wind and water.  Those requirements are non-negotiable.  To succeed on a big wave a surfer must strike a perfect balance between physical strength and humility.

The business of modern surfing has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry,  Surfboards, wet suits, fashionable surfwear and more fuel an increasingly powerful market.  Upping the ante, niche travel agencies now offer hardcore surfers vacations to exotic oceanside destinations around the globe.  And though prices average $1,000 for a starter longboard, one New Zealander handcrafts paulownia wood boards that sell for over half a million dollars.  But it has not always been a dollar-driven pastime.

Around 2000 B.C. indigenous populations began migrating out of Asia and into the Eastern Pacific.  During that period ancient Polynesians journeyed to the area defined by New Zealand (Aotearoa) at the southernmost point, Tonga and Samoa along the western boundary, and the Marquesas to the east, eventually making their way to Hawai’i in the fourth century A. D.

Evidence contained in Captain James Cook’s log of his third trip to Hawai’i in 1778 record the existence of standup surfboard riding as practiced by Hawaiian kings at Kealakekua Bay on the Kona Coast of the Big Island where they rode standup olo boards.  But for Papua New Guineans who had been riding the waves on their stomachs and referred to their belly boards as “splinters”, surfing took on a bold new dynamic in the 1980’s when an Australian pilot came there on holiday in search of the perfect wave.   It was then that “Crazy Taz”, as he was known, left his surfboard behind and the cultural landscape was forever altered.

For Californian Adam Pesce who honed his passion for surfing on the legendary Rincon Beach in his hometown of Santa Barbara, a proposed trip to Papua New Guinea (PNG) was the dream of a lifetime.  Inspired by an article in a surfing magazine, he took off with friends in 2004 to Papua New Guinea (PNG) part of a string of islands off the east of the Malay Archipelago in the South Pacific.  He had taken a simple documentary film course and was eager to shoot the local surfing scene for a film he planned to make while hitting the waves along the island’s famous sea breaks.

After three months of research shooting he returned to California and seeing the video he had shot, he realized the travelogue-style footage did not have the makings of a film.  He abandoned the project until 2008 when he got a call from Andrew Abel, President of the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea.  Abel told him they were planning their first national surfing championships in PNG and the trials would determine who would represent the country at the world surfing games in Australia.  When Pesce heard this he realized the upcoming event could be the center of his movie and he returned to PNG in 2009 to begin shooting.

Armed with nothing but camera gear, a few surfboards and a degree in diplomacy from Occidental College in L.A., Pesce lived among the natives for seven months where he would become director, producer, editor and cinematographer on his first film, Splinters.

Of the 850 languages spoken throughout this Indonesian island chain of 5 million people, the most common is Melanesian Pidgin (Tok Pisin).  Pesce began his stay by learning the language without a translator.  He moved into an old shack with one of the local surfers who planned to compete in the surfing championship, and started shooting between bouts of malaria.  His goal wasn’t to make a “surf movie” –- he wanted to tell the story of how one surfboard changed a culture.

The seaside community of Vanimo in Papua New Guinea where Pesce set up production is not as idyllic as it appears at first glance.  The small village and surrounding country are a shape-shifting and complex culture clinging desperately to a primitive past.  Up until recently, cannibalism and “cargo cults” were still practiced in the more remote outposts and today its citizens maintain a strict patriarchal society even as it becomes increasingly westernized through mining and fishing.

Caught between ancient taboos and emerging cultural changes, the country’s struggles are often more sociological than economic.  For example brides are still bought by men through a “bribe price” or dowry, in which payment to the bride’s family allows the husband to physically abuse his wife.  Domestic abuse is part of the film’s portrayal of family life on PNG, which includes strong scenes of men abusing their wives and even children in full view of the other villagers.

Splinters is the first feature-length documentary about the evolution of indigenous surfing in the South Pacific and the near fanatical obsession of the island’s surfers.  But it is also a highly compelling story filmed in cinema verité style and told by the subjects themselves.  It is their personal struggles and triumphs set against the backdrop of a lush tropical paradise that is at the heart of the film.

The film focuses on surfers from two competing surf clubs – the Sunset Surf Club and Vanimo Surf Club.  Angelus, the son of the first native surfer in Vanimo, and Ezekiel, his protégé, are surfing rivals in the remote seaside community of Vanimo Village, where nearly everyone is related by birth or marriage.  They dream of achieving prestige in their village by competing in the local surfing championships and ultimately competing against world-renowned surfers in Australia.  For both the men and women, it’s their only ticket off the island and a chance to see the world.

The film also follows two of the island’s most accomplished female surfers, Lesley and Susan, who are sisters.  Both need to gain acceptance into one of the all-male surf clubs in order to enter the competition.  Lesley is the bolder of the two women.  Alternately capitulating to the men or standing her ground, she cannily walks a social tightrope, using maneuvering techniques as deft as those she excels in when riding a wave.  Susan on the other hand is more conventional and accepts the subservient role women are taught to assume.  Yet each becomes instrumental in altering the current culture’s groupthink.

In a pivotal scene Abel tells the men that in order to compete nationally the women must be accepted into the clubs.  Despite centuries of culturally sanctioned male dominance, the men must learn to sublimate their egos and accept the women as equal participants.  For the men an even greater challenge than compromising ancient societal rules, is the simple act of getting along with one another as old clan rivalries flare up and threaten their chances of entering the contest.  It is only when the teams begin to work together and the women are included that they begin to see what they can achieve.

Interspersed with the surfing and breathtaking scenery are flashes of violence.  In one incident a woman is severely beaten by her husband to the encouragement of his neighbors, in another the men threaten each other in a drunken nighttime road rage incident.  The scenes are brutal and graphic, but Pesce felt it vital to portray the reality of life in PNG.

Splinters brings to the screen an intimate and emotional portrait of a culture tragically trapped in a violent past.  By showing how surfing can serve as a catalyst for social change and gender equality, the film attempts to prove the axiom that society can only advance when each and every citizen is inherently invested in its future success.

Last month ICTMN spoke with Adam Pesce by phone from his home in Santa Barbara, California.

ICTMN: How long ago had the people of Papua New Guinea been surfing?

Adam Pesce: The elders told me that as long as they can remember they were belly surfing on broken pieces of their dugout canoes.  When that surfboard was left behind in PNG on the 1980’s, they first transitioned from belly-boarding to standing up.

What attracted you to make a film on surfing involving indigenous people?

It was a mix of several interests.  I grew up surfing in California where I was studying international relations and had an interest in travel.  I decided to go explore in Vanimo.  I was definitely interested in the Western values associated with the surfboard and how they would mesh with local traditions.

When you began shooting in PNG were you surprised by the harsh traditions still practiced there?

I didn’t know how ingrained these traditions were going to be and once I was on the ground there were these walls they put up.  I saw women butting up against them and these women were definitely the trailblazers.

Were you ever afraid?

I definitely was afraid for myself.  The threat of violence was always there.  Things can always turn on a dime.

Have you gone back to show the film yet?

I’m looking forward to bringing the film to Vanimo and showing it to the people and planning an event around it.  There’s talk of bringing it to the championship [World Qualifying Series] surfing event in Vanimo in 2013.  However Andy and Ezekiel [one of the surfers in the film] were able to come to New York and to see it at the Tribeca Film Festival this spring.

How did it affect them?

It was an overwhelming experience for Ezekiel who ended up in New York doing a press event at the screening of a film he had starred in but never seen.  I was very concerned that he might not like the film or how he was being portrayed or that it would be inaccurate in his mind.  In PNG men will hold hands as they talk or walk around the village, so we held hands throughout the screening and after the credits he turned to me and said, “Thank you”.  It was a very special moment for me — knowing that he enjoyed the film.

Did you ever speak with him about male to female relationships on PNG and how their society might evolve as a result of the surfing competition?

I didn’t have that conversation with Ezekiel, but I did speak to Andy at length following the screening of the film and he was really taken aback with the seriousness of the way surfing could really elevate the status of women in PNG.  And I know he is doing his best to make sure that women have access to surfboards and have opportunities to compete and travel.

I would like to add that I’m looking to collaborate with a domestic violence shelter in Vanimo, where people will be able to contribute to a place for women seeking legal aid and physical refuge, and that the film will be screening at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival this spring in Melbourne, Australia.

Splinters has been a huge hit on the indie film circuit and has been the Official Selection in film festivals from London to Warsaw to Newport Beach and was voted “best Documentary” by Surfer MagazineIt is available for rent or purchase on iTunes or go to for 2012 screenings in your area.

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