“I love surfing but I definitely didn’t want to make a surf film where it’s just about performance,” says first-time filmmaker Adam Pesce whose documentary, Splinters, unfolds in the isolated village of Vanimo, Papua New Guinea. “I wanted to tell a story that could be more universal, mixing in a surf competition with anthropological elements.”
Sitting in the northwest corner of the country, Vanimo is blessed with tropical beaches, rainforests and world-class surf breaks, but due to its remote location, it has few amenities, economic prospects and is relatively untouched by the outside world. It’s a traditionally patriarchal society, a place where women are very much second-class citizens and a strong social hierarchy is enforced through domestic violence and intimidation. But since an Australian pilot left a surfboard in the village in the 1980s, surfing’s popularity has exploded – aided by a long-standing tradition of bellyboarding. Bit by bit, Western culture has started to infiltrate village life, thanks to glossy surf mags, visiting surfers and the surf industry’s promises of fame and riches.
Despite no formal training in filmmaking, Pesce decided he needed to capture this tale. After a few recce trips to the village, this one-man film crew went all in, gathering up camera and surfboards and settling in the village for months at a time, learning the local language and recording daily life as it unfolded. “I had a vow that I wasn’t going to come back until I had a movie,” says Pesce. “My goal was to have an intimate approach, immersing myself in life as much as possible, building relationships and then getting the camera out when something significant was happening.”
Splinters documents Vanimo in the run up to Papua New Guinea’s very first national surf competition, a contest that locals hope will either improve their own wealth and status or provide jobs through tourism. But beyond the anticipation lies tension – a village divided as two rival surf clubs compete not just for glory but the potential economic spoils of victory. Among the villagers hoping for success is brash, long-time hero Angelus and naive but talented upstart Ezekiel, both of whom have their sights set on the prize of a trip to Australia and the chance to make a living out of their sport. But most striking is Susan and Lesley, two local women who have challenged the natural order of their society by simply paddling out. For them, winning the competition will vindicate their struggle and, they hope, improve their status among the men of the village. “Surfing for the women was especially powerful and important. It’s actually bringing in these Western, egalitarian values,” says Pesce.
“I wanted to explore the flipside of surfing. Whether the expectations [the villagers have] will work out for them,” he adds. “I was very conflicted while I was out there. I saw some kids bellyboarding without a care in the world, engrossed in this beautiful pastime. But there were also older guys who were jaded by the whole thing. I think the jury is still out as to how this surfing experiment will unfold.”
London Surf/Film Festival is hosting a special screening of Splinters followed by a Q&A with Andy Able, president of Surfing Association PNG and Chris Hines MBE, former director of Surfers Against Sewage, on Wednesday, May 28 at 7.30pm, Riverside Studios, London. Proceeds will be donated to SAPNG.