All surfers have some kind of relationship or stigma with sharks. They are the mysteriously fascinating predators that swim beneath your feet when you’re waiting for a set, the creatures that can smell the blood from your reef rash from miles away and the animals that have a reputation for being brutal killers, when they are just misunderstood and horrifically portrayed. If you know anything about sharks, you know South Africa is the hot spot. In June, when the swell starts pumping, the sharks roll in, following the sardines on their migration. Only in South African waters can you see a 2-ton great white shark breach the surface in powerful fashion as it bombards its seal dinner.
Australian filmmaker Julian Watson set out last year to make a documentary to help ease the fear of sharks and also share local South African stories to help the world overcome the stigma that sharks are brutal killers. Watson ended up with “Surfing and Sharks,” a heart-felt film which follows a triad of South African surfers with their own unique shark experiences. One young passionate surfer, Avuyile Ndamase (or Avo as Watson calls him) lost his younger brother to a shark attack while surfing. The film follows him through his realization that his fear of sharks cannot hold him back from his dream of being a professional surfer.
Surfbang had a chance to talk to Watson about his film and the guts it took to make it. Here is what he had to say.
SB: Tell me about yourself, Julian.
JW: Well, I’m a film director born and raised in Melbourne, Australia who went to Amsterdam for a birthday party and didn’t leave for 10 years! In that time, I traveled as far as I couldÂ all over, sometimes making volunteer projects and sometimes shooting film.Â I created my production company,Â Soletransmission.com, in Holland, which I think occurred to forces of nature (and crappy economy at the time) which in the end helped me realize all kinds of dreams and ideas I never expected.
SB: The title of your film gives a pretty good insight into what it’s actually about, but is there a more personal, underlying theme to this documentary?
JW: Yeah, the title… we talked and talked about it, but in the end it was the best way to hit the widest audience possible. And I mean, the underlying is much more complex in every topic that surrounds “Surfing and Sharks” that we didn’t want to take a one sided opinion as film makers. We talked to a diverse mix of people involved and let them speak for themselves. Otherwise the topic becomes too heavy/tricky/complex and you get lost in details, rather than the bigger picture.
Julian Watson (left) and camera man looking for a good spot to film.
SB: What inspired you to make this film?
JW: We went to Capetown for a surf/beer/road trip/party with some friends (as you do) and I think even the first night we spoke about making a film. I think I’d been bugging my girl about wanting to shoot another documentary film from pure passion and not commercial drive for at least six months before that. So we went on a shark cage dive while in town and I bumped into Mike Rudson (TV shark guy) on his tour. There were no animals for two hours, so I started talking to him,
which was a a big inspiration. He was actually more interesting than the actual dive itself. We also stayed in the Endless Summer Beach House, which is a shrine to Bruce Brown film nostalgia. Then I was introduced to Chris Mason, who at the time was working for Wavescape, which held a surf film festival, and was keen to help out on the local production side.
And yeah, put all that together and it was a great start!
SB: You must have spent a great deal of time filming this. Can you take me through the process from start to finish?
JW: This is the fastest documentary we have ever made–11 Months from inception to world premier. It was 4 months of concept / flow / direction / design / sponsorship finding, 30 days of manic 28-hour days back-to-back shooting in June (the height of the sardine run and when South Africa’s biggest swellÂ shows up everywhere). We road-tripped from Capetown all the way down the east coast to Durban and ending with a the free dive at Aliwal Shoal. Let’s just say that someone was on our side. We had great shooting conditions: weather, nature, animal, character-wise 100 percent.
It’s one of those things that happens so fast that you spend all your energy just keeping up with it. And yeah South Africa is a very friendly place where every question you ask anyone is usually a “yes” instead of “no.” That really helped- respect. But still not sure how many speeding tickets we have! So from there, 4 months of post and we were live, back in Capetown for the premier December, 15th 2011.
Julian Watson (middle) with producers Chris Mason (right) and Joep Van Oppen (left) at the "Surfing and Sharks" premier.
SB: What was your ultimate goal in making this film? What did you want people to take away from it?
JW: We made this film with the intention that we wanted the whole world to experience it . It’s a story from all sides. It takes on everything you know and challenges it. We really wanted a pure film that spoke from the heart of every person involved behind and in front of the lens. I guess there is an underlying conversation and overall “respect the ocean” message, but also expect the unexpected.
SB: As surfers, we are practically destined to have some experience with sharks and you explore that in your film. Now, I have to ask you. Have you had any personal encounters or stories involving sharks?
JW: Well, I did the cage dive and then a research trip with white sharks, which were two very different experiences. Then the free dive in Aliwal Shoal (you might recognize me, as I was in some of the water shots) So I went from having no real idea of this animal to loads of experiences and stories. Ironically, now I’m much more conscious of some home breaks here in Melbourne.
Oh and I also did the fin mistake and spotted a dolphin, which I thought was a shark while down that way– eyes popping out of my head, which went down messy with my mates.
SB: Your film is going to be shown in Los Angeles this month at the 35th International Wildlife Film Fest, where are the other stops you are going to make on the film fest tour? Any chance you’ll be stopping in New York?
We were asked to apply to the New York Film Festival (NYFF) so lets see. The US is a big place and there are loads of festivals. We will also make a European summer tour: Oxford International Film Festival, Surf Film Festival in Spain, surf and skate film festival in Germany, there is one in the Honolulu Museum of Art andÂ you can see it in the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. But, there will be more. You can see all the screenings and updates plus loads of information on sharks on our Facebook page.
SB: What was the most exciting part about filming this documentary? And do you have a fondest memory?
JW: Well for sure it was the free dive with Avo, our lead character, and that whole day. It was that moment where you know that now you have all the bits you need for a wicked film! I think also the shark research trip in False Bay–we were alone with more than 700 dolphins, heaps of seals and white sharks all in a morning… It was amazing.
SB: There are a few people in this documentary that you focus on, especially SA surfers Andrew ‘Roosa’ Lange and Avuyile Ndamase. How did you meet them and decide to make them the prime subjects of your film?
JW: Roosta (our hero) we were connected to via our local producer Chris Mason who did an amazing job of showcasing loads of interesting people to sift through for exactly the right mix. Avo’s (Avuyile Ndamase) story is better. We found him, or actually he found us, in East London and we initially only planned to spend one hour on an interview with him, but he blew us away with his story and after 10 beers and deciding to throw some of our original story in the fire we deiced to take him with us. Probably one of the most exciting parts about making doco’s is you make the base and then let the world
play it’s part.
Filming Avuyile Ndamase and his mother.
SB: There were so many amazing shots of the sharks swimming in this film. Did you actually get to go in the water and film them yourself?
JW: Both Tjitte (Director of Photography) and myself are in some of the water screens if you look closely. It was a great experience.
SB: I would love to see this film as a special on the Discovery Channel here in the US. It would be a really great edition to the legendary Shark Week event. What are your plans for releasing this film to the global public?
Yep, we are working on that and also our official website
, where you can be in contact will all people involved with the film if you want to learn more or have any questions. You can check our Facebook for when and if weÂ Â Â Â get some TV airtime.
Remember to follow “Surfing and Sharks” on Facebook and Twitter for updates on screenings in your area and when (and hopefully if) it’s featured on Shark Week.