Filmmaker Rocky Romano is not the first person to fall for Santa Cruz. (So many have, but who has the space to document it all?) So, when grilled about what he believes makes the area stand out, Romano just laughs. “Yeah—there’s something in the water here, right?”
Maybe it’s not the water—maybe it’s the people.
That’s something Romano discovered all too vividly when he embarked on filming a documentary about surf icon Anthony Ruffo. The film makes its much-anticipated debut in the 10th annual—so big, so bold—Santa Cruz Film Festival [SCFF] May 14 (see insert). It chronicles, sometimes quite dramatically, Ruffo’s curious journey of late.
The doc’s trailer, in the filmmaker’s words, says it all: “On Oct. 1, 2010, I contacted professional surfer and methamphetamine addict Anthony Ruffo in regard to making a documentary film about his life. I thought that this would be a story about the rise and fall of a surfing icon. Instead … I got a story about being human.”
So, here’s what we get: Ruffo’s tale of how the 47-year-old professional surfing legend struggled with methamphetamine addiction and the often mindbending efforts he has made to lead two communities—Santa Cruz and the professional surfing world—out of drug dependency and, as the filmmaker notes, “into a clearer and healthier future.”
“It became about much more than the typical rise and fall of a surfing icon,” Romano notes. “It became more about a cautionary tale of life choices; a story about being human and, ultimately, a story about community. Anthony is a great micro. He’s a vehicle that allows us to study this macro problem in the community. Through Anthony, we see the trials and tribulations he goes through but we also see how it affects the community and what the community is doing to make a difference.”
Born and raised on the Westside, Ruffo has been dubbed one of “Godfathers” of the Westsiders’ surf brotherhood, which helped put Santa Cruz on the surfing map. There were accolades—Ruffo found fame as the first champion of the Coldwater Classic back in 1985. (He still surfs professionally.) But, with all that glory came “partying,” which eventually lead to addiction. In fact, Ruffo currently faces a five-year prison sentence for alleged distribution of methamphetamine.
The court date is May 9, a few days before Ruffo hits the screen at the SCFF.
“The greatest misconception is that addiction is not a disease,” Ruffo tells GT. “It is important to raise awareness to the fact that it is a disease and can be cured like other diseases.”
That’s where things get interesting.
As Romano illuminates in the film, Ruffo voluntarily checked himself into the Clear Mind Healthy Planet treatment center in New York back in November. To call the treatment “creative” is an understatement (see sidebar), but afterward, Ruffo was clean—clearheaded you might say. So much so that he began seeking ways to give back to Santa Cruz. Upon his urging, Clear Mind Healthy Planet founder Genie O’Malley and her team arrived in Santa Cruz for a workshop and what would become The Anthony Ruffo Project. This all unfolded in December of 2010, with the intent to introduce his concept to the city. More than 40 people attended at least four hours a day for the entire week. Now Ruffo continues to oversee his rehab and has managed to speak at schools about drug abuse and addiction.
Rocky Romano (left) directed a film about fellow Santa Cruzan Anthony Ruffo (right), to premiere at the SCCF on May 14. Photo: Kelly Vaillancourt
“The film is a three-act play,” Romano notes. “Basically, there’s the first part of Anthony’s life—his beginnings, and overview of Santa Cruz, his childhood, his surfing, his redemption, the day he goes into court. And then it goes into this second act—all the positive things the community of Santa Cruz has been doing to try to solve this problem of drug abuse. We have nonprofit leaders, the mayor, the pro young surfers who are killing it. They have their acts together.
“And then we go onto Anthony’s trial to see what happens to him,” he adds. “His trial isn’t till May 9. And we’re showing on the 14th. As you can see, this is experimental theater.”
Romano is an interesting bird as well. The 41-year-old is known for being an action sports athlete turned writer-producer-director. He’s produced more than 20 short films and a couple of feature films. Back in 2005, he launched The Go Big Project, Inc., a slick action sports production company based in Lake Tahoe. (He now splits his time between Santa Cruz and Tahoe.) Overall, his films have generated some good buzz, particularly Ride A Wave, which captured the hearts of SCFF audiences last year.
Romano stumbled upon Ruffo’s story, quite by accident. He was in between projects when he read about the surfer’s trials and tribulations, and wondered if it would make for a good doc. He dug deeper.
“What I first thought,” Romano admits, “was that this guy was a loser and I didn’t want anything to do with it. And it went from that to ‘Wow—he’s whacked, he’s a meth head, he’s really messed up … to starting to form a friendship with him and experience some of things he was going through. It just became sad, more than anything.”
But somewhere along the way, it also became uplifting.
“I think there’s a great message in the film,” he says, noting Ruffo’s journey and pointing out Clear Mind Healthy Planet—unique, although there are naysayers that debunk the treatment methods, which rely on a three-breath procedure, among other things.
About that, Romano shrugs. “I’ve seen the metamorphosis in Anthony and his desire to want to come and back and help the community,” he says. “He really risked it. There was another program—a 12-step program, which the court approved—but he risked it to come to Clear Mind. And then he came back to help the community. He came back from a bad position. I feel he’s doing tremendous good right now. “
“I am 173 days clean and feeling the best I have ever felt before as an adult,” Ruffo admits. “I am moving forward in a positive direction, surfing well and loving the discoveries of everyday.”
Of the drug dependency in the past, he notes that at different times, the drugs, “completely remove a person’s awareness to self-destruction but at different times along the road, you get that your life is slipping away.”
The worst moment, he adds, has been realizing the pain his addictions caused others—realizing that and healing relationships has been an important part of healing from the addiction. “It’s never too late to get back on the horse and that presents challenges and opportunities,” he says.
Romano agrees. “It’s all about being a part of a call to action,” he says about facing life challenges. “I mean, don’t wake up and give your dollar. Wake up and make a difference. Little differences are what really matters. Wake up tomorrow and do something just a little better than you did today. Make your community better.”
Ruffo is the closing night film of the Santa Cruz Film Festival. It screens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 14 at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. The program also includes a screening of Kyle Thiermann’s Where is Away? Solving Plastic Pollution in 4 Minutes. This year, more than 160 films representing 33 countries, including 67 that were produced by Santa Cruz/Monterey filmmakers, are in the spotlight. Learn more at santacruzfilmfestival.org or dive into this week’s festival program insert. Catch up with Rocky Romano’s work at rockyromanoonline.com. Learn more about Clear Mind Healthy Planet at clearmindhealthyplanet.org.
Staying Clear – Inside Clear Mind Healthy Planet
There are times in life when fate throws you a curve ball. If that happens, you have a number of choices. 1) You can whine about why the ball being thrown is suddenly curved. (“I’m not used to this,” you might cry. “It’s uncomfortable.”] Or 2) You can swing at the ball anyway—again and again sometimes—and then have wine to celebrate your efforts. (Recommended.)
Genie O’Malley knows all about cosmifac baseball, as it were. Actually, with all life’s bases loaded lately, she’s even managed to hit one right out of the park. And it has everything to do with Santa Cruz, the surf icon Anthony Ruffo, the filmmaker Rocky Romano and a surprisingly inspiring community of locals healing from personal afflictions and/or addictions.
Yes. Drug addicts.
O’Malley is at the helm of Clear Mind Healthy Planet, a unique healing/rehabilitation portal of sorts, which is featured prominently in the Santa Cruz Film Festival documentary Ruffo—the film chronicles Ruffo’s road to rehab/healing after meth use left him facing court battles and personal crises, among other things.
But what makes O’Malley’s story so unique, other than being part of the film, is that the Long Island resident and health book author temporarily left her home and office back East to set up camp here … all so that locals dealing with addiction and other personal afflictions could find a safe path to healing.
After working with Ruffo and having a workshop locally in December, O’Malley says she marveled at how well people were doing on the program and that it became apparent to her that locals were in need and looking for new ways of dealing with addiction and other problems, as well.
What It Is: Think of Clear Mind Healthy Planet as a post-modern health/wellness portal/treatment agenda for addicts—with a twist. At its core, it professes to allow “individuals and communities struggling with the repercussions and self-destruction of addiction, incarceration, and mental health conditions to benefit from the Clear Mind Cognitive Healing Process.”
Where It Came From: O’Malley. Think of her as the Joan of Arc for modern-day addicts. She totes the Clear Mind Three-part Breath Cognitive Healing Process for the Mind.
How It Works: O’Malley et al leads/teaches those in treatment a unique three-breath breathing process that also includes positive messaging. Watered down it comes down to this, more or less: a curious reboot/cleanse for the brain/mind, body and spirit for an overall result that allows individuals to heal from negative feelings and interpretations that have deteriorated quality of life.
The backstory to all this is an eyebrow-raiser, but in only a way Northern Californians, in particular, could truly appreciate. Fourteen years ago, O’Malley, an Aussie, was living Down Under. She had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. This, after years of battling suicidal depression and a 12-year chemical addiction. After she was diagnosed, she decided to venture into a rainforest by herself, setting up camp in a teepee, where she would remain for days, weeks.
“I was curious to see if I had a capacity to feel love,” O’Malley admits. “There was always a distraction and the ‘drama’ was there. I wanted to see if I could actually feel it.”
It was there, in the rainforest, that O’Malley says she discovered the breathing techniques now being used in her program, one that, apparently, has successfully been assisting addicts, like Ruffo, near and far, to move beyond their chemical addictions and stay “clean.”
“This technique came to me,” she says. “I used them spontaneously and ended up staying in the forest [for] six weeks.”
Within the stillness of that forest, with no outer influence, nothing defining her, nothing of her old life telling her who she was, O’Malley says she became “more receptive to hearing other things inside” of her.
At the end of six weeks, she was “standing there, saying goodbye to the forest because I was deciding to go home and have the treatment, and I heard a voice say to me … ‘If feeling love were as simple as breathing, would you do it?’
“I said, ‘Yes I would,’” she goes on, “and at the moment, I took a strange, three-part breath and I heard the word ‘precious.’ And I thought, ‘why would I hear the word precious? I wouldn’t even have the capacity to hear that word.’ I knew who I had been—how I had lived my life—would not have had an awareness to hear that word. I was fascinated. And then I heard another voice: ‘What is with all this shit breathing? You’re dying. Are you tripping? Get out of here!’
“And I said, ‘You know what? You can go fuck yourself.’ And once I said that to that negative voice, I felt love. And I thought, ‘Wow … it’s not about looking for love, it’s about realizing that you are not what’s telling you you’re not love.’“
After the rainforest experience, O’Malley says she later documented the techniques for nine months and her research later morphed into Clear Mind Healthy Planet. The entire program incorporates breathing techniques—“the voice comes, you tell it to fuck off. You take three breaths, you say … ‘I am freedom, etc.’ That’s how people get free.
“Our perception becomes our emotions and our thoughts,” O’Malley adds. “And so we use this to redevelop social structure of communities to become passionate communities—communities that can embrace the brokenness of these people who have either been incarcerated, or using and have addictions.’
She notes that embracing the “brokenness” is actually ripe for opportunities and potential “rather than keeping addicts stuck in their old ideas of who they are.”
When in Santa Cruz, O’Malley also discovered—and others agree—that drug use locally, particularly meth use, is high (see sidebar).
“There’s a huge chemical dependency problem here,” she says. “And it’s so interwoven into the social acceptability of this friendship culture of this big ‘neighborhood.’ I find it very fascinating. And it’s very easy to change, too. I came here Dec. 6 to do this workshop and from that workshop, we had about 19 to 25 people, pretty solidly, pretty clearly now redefining how they live their lives.”
As for the doc on Ruffo, which Romano has brought to life, and the man himself, O’Malley first met him late last year when Ruffo flew back East to take part in the program. According to Romano and O’Malley, he’s had success and remains clean and sober.
Upon Ruffo’s urging, O’Malley was lead to consider living in Santa Cruz to help locals going through similar issues.
“I’ve traveled the world; I’ve done this practice for so many men and women,” she says, “and for Anthony to stand up and reveal himself so much the way that he has… and reveal his vulnerabilities, has been amazing to me.
“We all sit home with all of our shit and many of us don’t really do anything about it unless we get called on it,” she adds. “And Anthony was called on it because he got into trouble. And then we get to that point where we have a choice with what we are going to do with it. I’ve worked with 48,000 people in my career and not one of them has ever stood up to heal a community and begged me to help a community—so that’s who he is to me. He’s a guy who faces his bullshit; who is completely there for his community and has taken some of these criminals and addicts off of the streets, and that is all he is responsible for. When you look at that … you can’t even say that he is who he was before, because he was loaded on drugs. Now, we’re meeting Anthony.” | Greg Archer
Learn more at clearmindhealthyplanet.org.
Notes and other factoids about Methamphetamine concerns, as noted in the 2010 Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project:
How big of an impact has methamphetamine use had in your neighborhood?
(Respondents answering “A Big Impact” or “Somewhat.” 2009 by region.)
25.9% (North County)
33% (South County)
42% (San Lorenzo Valley)
Overall admissions for methamphetamines
Up 45.9% from 2001 to 2009