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A Documentary for Surfers and Non-Surfers Alike

Surfwise, a documentary directed by Doug Pray, explores the life and times of the Paskowitz clan, the “first family of surfing". Combining talking head interviews with 85-year old Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, his wife, Janelle, and his nine children, archival footage, and photographs of Paskowitz and his family shot over the last fifty years, Surfwise is nothing less than compelling filmmaking. It also doesn’t matter whether you’re a surfer or even if have a passing interest in surfing, since Pray’s emphasis is on the Paskowitz family’s journey through more than four decades of American history and the contradictory, conflicting dynamics that most, if not all, families share, large or small.

A Stanford-educated medical doctor, Dorian Paskowitz moved to Hawaii to practice medicine in the early 50s. After two failed marriages, Paskowitz left Hawaii to discover himself, bringing his surfboard along. Paskowitz spent a year in Israel, where he left his mark in the Israeli surfers who adopted his surfing techniques. His attempt to join the Israeli army failed, however, and Paskowitz found himself back in the United States where he met his future wife, Janelle, a 26-year old woman eager to join Paskowitz and his itinerant lifestyle. Over the next ten years, Janelle gave birth to eight sons, David, Jonathan, Abraham, Israel, Moses, Adam, Salvador, and Joshua, and one daughter, Navah. Together, the entire family lived in a 24-foot long camper, traveling up and down the California coast and South America in search of the perfect wave.

Paskowitz’s unconventional approach to raising his family included daily exercise, a strict vegan diet, and surfing. Paskowitz saw the educational system as an obstacle to what he wanted to impart to his children: enlightenment and wisdom. And, of course, finding and riding the perfect wave, as often as possible. Food was always in short supply, but Paskowitz managed to keep his family fed and clothed, taking odd jobs, including serving as a doctor in rural areas, as necessary. As the Paskowitz children grew, they won surfing competitions throughout the seventies and early eighties, but living that closely for that long had its consequences.

Besides the hyper-competitiveness typical of male siblings (exacerbated by living in such close quarters), clashes became more frequent as the elder Paskowitz tried to control his family. Some left as early as 18, others left soon thereafter, each eventually finding their way apart from the Paskowitz clan, working a variety of jobs and careers, and often spending years without talking to each other. Even the surfing that brought them together proves to be problematic in the real world: Paskowitz founded a surfing camp in 1972 that he entrusted to his sons (Navah married and became a homemaker). The struggle for control of the camp becomes just one more obstacle for the family to overcome.

To Pray’s credit, Surfwise doesn’t play out, as it seems to at first, as a paean to Doc Paskowitz’s unconventional life and the choices he made for himself and his family. There is that, of course, but over Surfwise’s 95-minute running time, Pray gives the Paskowitz brothers and sister the chance to speak openly about the negative aspects of their respective childhoods (e.g., the limited diet, the itinerant lifestyle, the lack of material possessions, and Doc’s often dictatorial approach to raising his family). Their openness, their willingness to reexamine their collective pasts, however, proves to be both painful and cathartic for them.

Pray seems to have encouraged or set up a reunion of the entire family, the first in ten years, on Hawaii. The slightly mellower Doc hasn’t changed his outlook on life or criticizing family members who haven’t lived up to his expectations, but his children seem to have come around to accepting the totality of their experiences living with him, good and bad. If that sounds like your family (as it might), then Surfwise might just be a relevant, even enlightening experience to sit through.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars