Papua New Guinea is a land of myth and legend - an ecologically diverse country that is little visited by travellers and still offers the chance of true adventure and exploration. Surfing came to the people of PNG in the 80s when a visiting Australian pilot left behind a surfboard. Waveriding found fertile ground here; where rural life for many revolves around subsistence farming, and access to electricity and running water is still limited. Within this traditional society, where social customs and modern pressures rub against each other like the tectonic plates of the Pacific ring of fire, surfing has been an agent of change.
In his multi-award winning documentary Splinters, Director Adam Pesce explores the evolution of the indigenous surf scene and the impact it has had on this male-dominated society. Inter-club rivalries unfold in the run up to the first-ever national surfing championships, where honour and kudos are at stake as well as a spot on the Papua New Guinea national surfing team and with it, a chance to see the wider world.
Splinters is coming to the UK as part of a very special 3 night tour accompanied by Q+A with Andy Abel – President of Surfing Association PNG and Chris Hines M.B.E – campaigner for change and former director of Surfer’s Against Sewage.
Chris Nelson speaks to Director Adam Pecse about the challenges he faced capturing the burgeoning surf scene of Papua New Guinea.
“The genesis for the film was a very small article in a surfing publication,” explains Adam Pesce. “I read that this village in PNG had taken to the sport and they had gone fanatical about it. It seemed like a really interesting place to see the surfing experiment unfold. I was curious – what was the surfboard going to do for this community?”
“I packed up a few cameras and my boards and made a vow that I wasn’t going to return to the States without a film. I knew it needed to be intimate and the most important part of that was living there and being a part of whatever was happening. I had no idea what was going to unfold.”
“For the first two months I didn’t really shoot very much. What I was doing was learning the language, going surfing with everybody, living with the coach character Steve – living at his house on the beach, and he was the head of one of the surf clubs so I got to know all the surfers. I was figuring out who everyone was – getting to know this tiny town. After I’d been there for a while and wasn’t this strange guy walking around with a camera, that’s when it was OK for me to shoot.”
For Adam the lead up to the National Championships would form the spine to the story. “I knew it would provide some structure because there’s the ticking clock because you know it’s coming.”
But it wasn’t just the unfolding rivalries that Adam captured. PNG society has a reputation for domestic violence and an undercurrent of conflict at times, and as a filmmaker Adam found himself in some potentially explosive situations. “I was just as tense as it looks – there was no detachment,” he explains. “The goal for me was to take the nine months in this village and make it into a 90 minute film, that intensity that you felt, that’s what it was like being there. I tried to make sure that what the audience feel is what it felt like for me.” In one disturbing sequence a woman is attacked by a man in a busy market place. “No one else in that whole scene is intervening and there’s a cultural reason for that. It’s a family dispute and if someone from another family gets involved it becomes an issue for two families. Being a foreigner and figuring what the rules are is very strange. I used that scene to raise the profile of the issue. That was part of life there and most of the women that I met had experience with domestic violence. Filming that and including that was important. I felt that to not show it would be irresponsible because it’s pervasive.”
“I think that there are egalitarian values brushing up against some patriarchal ones. That was really one of the answers to the question of how is the surfing experiment going to unfold here. Director, Adam Pecse
“I think that there are egalitarian values brushing up against some patriarchal ones. That was really one of the answers to the question of how is the surfing experiment going to unfold here. The benefit in my mind was that it would give the women in this village the chance to ascend the social hierarchy. However the other side was that it might also bring some of the uglier side of the globalised west. You know, will surfing tarnish this village? You hear stories of Nias and Bali. A lot of people were left behind.”
Surfing always leaves indelible fingerprints on any culture or society it touches. In some places it brings challenges such as overcrowding, land grabs, pollution or localism; in others there are opportunities for economic growth and sustainable local development. In PNG they are aware that they are standing at a fork in the road. Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea is working with the local communities to establish a sustainable surfing system, introducing limits on the number of surfers at each break as well as a levy that guarantees benefits going to local communities and local surfers.
Splinters captures the raw and exciting genesis of surfing in Papua New Guinea and lays bare the pathways open to the burgeoning scene. It will be interesting to see if this fascinating land can establish a blue print for how surfing can be a force for change, while helping to respect the traditions that are the cornerstones of local communities.
Words by Demi Taylor.
Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to Surfing Association Papua New Guinea to buy surfboards for the local surf clubs. All ticket holders will be entered into a draw to win an incredible 10 day surf trip for two to Papua New Guinea.