Film-Forward Review: SURFWISE


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Dorian Paskowitz with eight of his brood in the 1970s
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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Directed by Doug Pray
Produced by: Tommy Means, Matthew Weaver, Jonathan Paskowitz & Graydon Carter
Director of Photography, Dave Homcy
Edited by Lässe Jarvi
Music by John Dragonetti
Released by HDNet Films/Magnolia Pictures
USA. 93 min. Rated R

The Biblical patriarch Jacob was a strict disciplinarian who fostered intense competition among his 12 sons and a daughter as he wandered with his two wives and two concubines. Though he wrestled with an angel, there’s no description of him ever surfing in the Holy Land – a sport a twice-married Jewish patriarch, Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, later brought to Israel before he founded a wandering dynasty of his own with a third wife, eight surfing sons, and a daughter.

With a trove of photos, home movie footage, and supplemental reminiscences of the family and fellow surfers, the salty Dorian, now an octogenarian, rhapsodizes over the peace he found in surfing. But he bitterly recalls his two failed marriages and the anxiety that accompanied his material success in a medical career in 1950’s Hawaii. Haunted by his isolation from the Holocaust, he made a pilgrimage to Israel, discovered great sex on the beaches of Tel Aviv, and taught the lifeguards a new way to walk on water by “standing on a piece of wood,” as his acolytes still recall in amazement.

Doc returns to California as a man with a plan for sexual and spiritual salvation that comes to fruition when he falls in love with a younger Mexican-American woman, Juliette. They move into a car and start a family. Living a life on the road, he embarks on creating his own return-to-nature society proscribed by his “five pillars of health” regimen of organic diet, exercise (primarily surfing), rest, recreation, and habits of the mind, including some Jewish rituals.

Though living off the grid, the family attracted so much attention over the years, especially once the older sons started entering and winning junior surf competitions, that director Doug Pray was able to find news and television coverage, particularly after the establishment of the Paskowitz Surf Camp in 1972 in California. (That’s where one of the producers first met the family. Similarly, the director of photography, Dave Homcy, got his first surfboard as a boy in Florida from Doc during his health promulgation efforts on the road.)

While outsiders saw perpetually vacationing surfing nomads, there was a dark side to this eccentric and earthy Swiss Family Robinson in a 24-foot camper. Where dad proudly feels he was raising his children like apes in the jungle, the kids saw a rigidly controlled environment like a dictatorial reich with no personal boundaries of any kind and their eldest brother as the physically enforcing capo. For the press, they impressively displayed their prowess on surf boards. But when adolescent hormones hit hard, several of the sons rebelliously sought out relatives for refuge, though they were continually stymied by their feral background with zero formal education. Kept out of schools, one son remarks he has no documentation of the first 23 years of his life.

There is much discussion of the siblings’ professional successes and frustrations as wild children adapting to modern civilization – one son comments that they were really only raised to be “a surfer, a bum, or a rock star,” as one does become a surfing champion, a couple others are seen performing with their bands, and the rest lend their surfing expertise to a variety of businesses (including one as a producer of this film). But while their ever serene mom thrills to her 17 grandchildren, there is surprisingly little insight about their personal lives or child rearing attitudes after being raised in such an unusual experiment of extreme home-schooling. The closest is when one son briefly mentions a bout of irresponsibility, while the sole daughter reflects on her choice to be a suburban mom, active in her local temple, and dreaming about the beach when she is stuck in traffic with her kids. As their intriguing story concludes with an unusual family reunion, they are all seen retaining their love of the simple joys of surfing, followed by the old man’s satisfied summation after the closing credits. Nora Lee Mandel
May 9, 2008



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