It wasn’t the first time Sarah Gerhardt paddled out at Mavericks, or even the second, when she rode her first cold mountain. But on her third trip into those frigid, sharky waters where booties and a hood are required apparel, she became the first woman to surf the infamous Northern California spot. The tale of what shaped Gerhardt into an athlete brave, confident and skilled enough to take on the so-called Everest of surf breaks is told in Elizabeth Pepin Silva’s One Winter Story.
The 2006 documentary will headline Sandy Feet Initiative’s inaugural Women’s Surf Film Fest in San Clemente this Saturday. “Sandy Feet is all about falling in love with the ocean,” says Mo Langley, president and co-founder of the Mission Viejo-based nonprofit. “Our purpose is to offer beach days to the siblings of children with special needs. We teach them to surf and boogie board safely in the ocean and give them time and attention to express the good and ugly about having a sibling with special needs.”
Completing the double bill is Silva’s most recent project, Introducing the Super Stoked Surf Mamas of Pleasure Point. While One Winter Story is a portrait as deep as the waves Gerhardt rides are steep, Surf Mamas delves into the burgeoning connection among five Santa Cruz women who surf, love the ocean and get pregnant about the same time. Their wetsuits display their growing bellies as they share waves with babies onboard. Once the kids are born, the friends’ lively and supportive community evolves far beyond mutual child care so they can get back into the salty waves.
“What hooked me on surfing was feeling utter freedom,” says Gerhardt, now a chemistry professor and mother of two who continues to surf Mavericks. Silva and collaborator Sally Lundburg capture that exultation in what appears to be miles of archival footage of Hawaii’s North Shore and Mavericks, mostly black-and-white or low saturations of color. But there’s not an archival frame in One Winter Story; the two filmmakers shot everything.
A student at the San Francisco Art Institute at the time, it was Lundburg’s idea to shoot in 16 mm. Silva had been working as an associate producer at a public-television station in the Bay Area and had solid PBS-style documentary chops. “By 2001, when Sally asked me to make [One Winter Story], I was eager to start making my own films and being freer in deciding how my films would look and feel,” Silva says.
With no funding, they used whatever stock they could get, much of it donated. “The choice to mix black-and-white and color film was both random and thought-out,” says Silva. The experimental approach is as appealing as the story, and it’s edited in a cohesive way to evoke archival footage, the warmth of Hawaii and winter in NorCal.
“When Mavericks surfers saw our film,” Silva continues, “they said it came closest to capturing what they experienced. [It] isn’t a color wave like Hawaii; it’s black and white, foggy, cold, damp, sharks. Dark underwater. Scary. Waves hit the cliff so hard it sets off the Richter scale at UC Berkeley. [It’s] overwhelmingly loud, chaotic. . . . Our grainy, shaky, black-and-white footage captured all of it.”
There was another obstacle in making the surf doc. “We wanted to tell Sarah’s life story, but how do you do that when your subject was poor and often homeless and had only 10 photographs of herself from ages 0 to 18?” asks Silva.
“I usually hate re-creations in documentaries,” she continues, “because they feel forced. But I thought that if we had footage that suggested what was being talked about rather than acted out, it might work.”
The nearly abstract sequences serve to turn down the volume on what we see in order to take in Gerhardt’s charged recollections. As a child, she was sole caregiver for her wheelchair-bound mother, whose MS didn’t prevent her from earning a master’s degree. Though her mother lived with limitations, “she lived as if she didn’t have any,” Gerhardt says in the film. And neither did she.
Freedom, no limits and a pioneering spirit also infuse Surf Mamas, which, at 20 minutes, ends too soon. That first exquisite re-immersion in salt after a hiatus on land stands out in each doc. The flack the women receive for surfing pregnant or just while female on the big waves at Mavericks acknowledges the misogyny, but it doesn’t dwell there.
And a carefree intimacy is mirrored in both films: In One Winter Story, we see Gerhardt and her husband, Mike—an expert big-wave rider who is gracious when referred to as “the husband of the woman who rides mountains”—slowly pedal bikes in their wetsuits with their boards under their arms; and in the other, three Surf Mamas walk barefoot in wetsuits, also with boards under their arms, happily anticipating getting into the water together.
As in all surf films by the Emmy-winning Silva, the water footage is a thrill, especially for nonsurfers seeking wave joy. Collaborator Paul Ferraris shot much of Surf Mamas and also worked on Silva’s previous film, La Maestra, the fly-on-the-wall portrait of schoolteacher Mayra Aguilar, the first woman to surf the local Baja Sur break near her village. When I learned Aguilar was one of the Surf Mamas, I expected she had been the seed of the project.
“Actually, no,” says Silva. “Katie Loggins called me up one day and said she had an idea for a film. . . . She told me about the Surf Mamas, and I was intrigued, but once she added that Mayra was part of the group, I knew I wanted to make the film.”
Loggins and her daughter, who appears as a baby bump in Surf Mamas, will attend the screenings along with Silva. The event benefits Sandy Feet’s upcoming summer programs and Silva’s next film, about local surf legends Linda Hanson and Joyce Hoffman.
“And the beautiful thing is that [the fest] will [raise] awareness of Sandy Feet and Elizabeth’s contributions to the art and surfing community,” says Langley, “and bring the women of Orange County together to celebrate our love of the ocean.”
Women’s Surf Film Fest at Ole Hanson Fireside Room, San Clemente Community Center, 100 N. Calle Seville, San Clemente, (714) 206-3810; www.sandyfeetoc.org. Sat., 4 p.m. $20.