As a fan of documentary film, I have long admired the work of writer/director Doug Pray. His 2001 film Scratch is still the best documentary on DJ-ing I've ever seen, and Infamy, his feature-length documentary about graffiti culture, was utterly fascinating. So, when I read a little blurb about Surfwise in Vanity Fair (the magazine's editor Graydon Carter is one of the film's producers), I was easily intrigued.
This time Pray turns his camera on Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, his wife Juliette, and their nine children. Now 85, Doc is largely credited with introducing surfing to Israel. It was only after two failed marriages and an unhappy experience pursing a traditional career that Doc decided to take a different path in life. He met and married Juliette and decided that theirs would be a life on the road. Juliette was pregnant when the couple married, and she spent much of the next decade having children. David, Jonathan, Abraham, Israel, Moses, Adam, Salvador, Navah, and Joshua were all born in an effort to "repopulate the world with Jews."
Despite the fact that Doc is a Stanford graduate, none of the children attended school. Instead, the family of nine children traveled the country in a twenty-four foot camper with one edict from their father: they must learn how to surf and surf well. On the surface, everything seems fairly idyllic. However, we learn that Doc had violent mood swings and was a strict disciplinarian. He seemed to enjoy the publicity his family received, but he even controlled those situations; the kids had to stand a certain way, look a certain way, and smile just right.
It was hard not to come away from Surfwise without viewing Doc Paskowitz as an extremely self-centered individual. While he kept his kids isolated from generally accepted social activities — schooling, a stable community, and schedule — these are things that he only rejected as an adult. His children didn't have a choice in the matter; by the time they grew up and left the camper, they were totally unprepared for the outside world. For a man who claims repeatedly not to care about traditional education, he seems to mention his Stanford degree in every other sentence.
Though the entire Paskowitz clan is the focus of Surfwise, and admiring surf pros put in appearances, Doc is unquestionably the star. Even in his mid-eighties he remains solidly focused on himself and living life outside the box. He is, however, able to see that some of the choices he made in life perhaps weren't the best for his children. Juliette's life seems totally beholden to Doc; whatever Doc wants, Doc gets.
The children, all in their thirties and forties, have all had difficulties adjusting to life as adults. Surfwise shortchanges the stories of some of the kids' troubles. We get brief glimpses of their lives and then another segment with Doc. A more fully etched portrait of the Paskowitz children would have helped Surfwise feel like a more complete film about family dynamics.
Despite a somewhat forced ending, Surfwise is a solid film about a complicated family. Surf flick fans and documentary devotees should find Doug Pray's latest effort very enjoyable.
Surfwise is in limited theatrical release starting May 9, 2008 and can currently be seen on HD Net Ultra VOD.