THE surfing movement in Papua New Guinea may have taken more than 24 years to evolve and gain popularity as a sport and a tourism product but it is about to hit the world with a bang - propelling PNG’s image and surfing here to heights never before imagined possible. On April 25, Splinters, a movie set in idyllic Lido village, Vanimo, will premier on the world stage in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival. In fact, two more screenings in New York following the world premiere have also been sold out including another screening at the Surfing Hall of Fame Museum in California. While critics may be cynical about how far the feature documentary can go in marketing and promoting Papua New Guinea on the world stage, president of Surfing Association of PNG Andrew Abel is adamant Splinters will, in one hit surpass any past or present marketing effort to promote surfing in North America.
“It will be enormous, it will be the major catalyst for PNG surfing to gain momentum in the United States and the world market for that matter as SAPNG has only been concentrating in luring surfers in the Australian and Japanese markets,” Abel said. On one level, splinters is a term given to small planks of wood for children to belly-surf with; sometimes they are pieces of old canoes and this prepares them stand up on modern surfboards. But, on a more metaphorical level, producer and director Adam Pesce saw the surfboard as a symbol of change but with that change comes fissures or cracks. This is Adam’s first film after only studying part-time documentary making and completing international relations studies. His interest in this remote island paradise suddenly intensified one day when he saw a picture of a young boy holding a splinter in a far-flung place called Papua New Guinea. So, in 2004, with no documentary-making experience, he packed his camera bags and headed for Vanimo.
After a few months in Lido he headed back to California empty-handed but two years later, he heard the inaugural PNG national surfing titles would be held in Lido in 2007 and that was what really made Splinters.
While Splinters is already getting great reviews and is been featured on websites, this is a short synopsis movie goers will read when they go to the world premiere in New York: “In the 1980s, an expatriate pilot left behind a surfboard in a remote seaside village in Papua New Guinea. Twenty years later, the sport of surfing is splintering Vanimo village. For select surfing talents, it’s a way to compete in the “whiteman’s” world. Personal and clan rivalries emerge as hopefuls’ claw for this prestigious position. The counter-cultural sport is also a unique catalyst for social change as women gain newfound status in a sometimes violent and patriarchal community. The surfing experiment comes to a head when five village surfers compete in the country’s first-ever national surfing titles. As the village grapples with its identity, these young heroes dream their surfboards will carry them to a better life.”
Adam Pesce insists he never set out to make a “surf movie”. “The phenomenon of western music and cinema revamping the cultural terrain of far-flung lands is ubiquitous. But, in the village of Vanimo, it really is the surfboard that is the most ardent ambassador of the west. It serves as both an icon of the modern world and the mechanism by which the indigenous environment is remodelled,” he says. “My aim with Splinters is to introduce the viewer to an experiment unfolding in a Petri dish. How the surfboard catalyst will ultimately fuse two disparate worlds together is unknown. Will it be the golden goose that provides a “way out” for emerging surfing talent? Or, could it give false hope and usher in the erasure of indigenous heritage while paving the way for commercial exploitation from the West? It is important to me that the film enlivens this debate yet leaves it unresolved. “In the people I filmed, I see the old world/modern world crossroads personified. Ezekiel’s puffed up surf dream is fed by the promise of Western stardom.
With the advent of Western influence, Lesley and Susan could be the beneficiaries of women’s rights but at the cost of eroding indigenous “family values.” “The dream of winning the surfing competition is not only that, it is the dream of achieving status in a modern world. That is the grand prize for the individual surfers and village at the end of the day. The siren song is sweet and much in the same way we might be inclined to idealise paradise, it seems paradise is looking back at us wearing the same rose-coloured glasses. Vanimo is a microcosm. Although castaway and idyll it is a reminder of the wider world’s struggle for “progress.” What is lusted after there is no different than here? The reality of that satiny, polished next big thing may not be either.”
Splinters followed the progress of surfing enthusiasts Steven Tekwie, Ezekiel Afara, Angelus Lipahi and sisters’ Leslie and Susan Umpa.
Since the 2007 national surfing titles the boys and Susan have represented PNG in the South Pacific Games and some advanced courses in Australia. Fast forward to March at Tupira in Madang for the 2011 Globe National Surfing Titles and they are all still competing except for Lipahi – who could not defend his 2007 short board title because so many young guns, with even bigger dreams, have come on to the surf scene. Abel and Ezekiel Afara will make the trip to New York for the world premiere of Splinters. They will be doing interviews and Abel will be taking the opportunity to spread the gospel on the evolution of surfing in PNG over the past 24 years. While the actors may not receive the same world fame as those in Slum Dog Millionaire – it is hoped it will none-the-less do wonders in proclaiming PNG to the world.
*Pictures courtesy of Nigel Kaua, April 2011. Papua New Guinea!