Documentary about local nonprofit challenges stereotypes concerning the disabled and surf culture
Special education teacher/videographer Julie Pollack, remembers filming from West Cliff in 2000 as one of her students, Brandon Arthur, went surfing for the first time.
“He was a little guy in a wheelchair, not able to sit up on his own, talk, or really hold himself up in the water,” she says. “His parents told me about this woman who wanted to take him surfing, so I held my breath from the cliff and watched them paddle this little guy out on the water. We all kind of got hooked on it from there because you could tell he was just so thrilled.”
Arthur has cerebral palsy and grew up in Santa Cruz watching the surfers from his wheelchair on the bluffs. His first time surfing ended up kickstarting a local organization called Ride a Wave (RAW), dedicated to giving local children with disabilities a day in the ocean.
“We never knew Brandon would end up becoming, I hate the term ‘poster child,’ but he did end up becoming the poster child for [RAW],” says Pollack.
Former tandem surfing champion and lifeguard, Danny Cortazzo (now a full-time firefighter and paramedic) founded RAW by organizing a group of local surfers—some of whom are world-renowned—that wanted to take children with special needs surfing for a day, in a safe environment.
Today, RAW is a 501c3 nonprofit run entirely by unpaid volunteers, that holds seven to 10 “Day on the Beach” events per year with more than 300 community volunteers each season, ranging from grade school children to senior citizens.
Pollack began to film the RAW events each year and create short DVDs for the volunteers, parents, and participants. In 2005, she debuted a short film that featured footage from the early years of RAW at The Rio Theatre.
Around 2009, Pollack decided to turn the hundreds of hours of RAW footage (no pun intended) she had compiled into a full-length documentary. However, she quickly learned that she could not do it alone, so she brought on her friend and fellow filmmaker, Major Skinner and, later, editor/producer Scott Girardin.
A year after Skinner and Pollack finished filming, Girardin began sifting through the footage and creating montage scenes. Now the final full-length documentary, Ride A Wave: “Live and Love it Up”—narrated by interviews gathered by the film crew—is set to premiere at The Rio Theatre on May 18.
“We had a set of questions we asked every single volunteer we interviewed, and so the story came out of their responses to the questions,” says Girardin. “We had to go find the footage to match their stories. [Skinner and Pollack] have been recording the events for the last 10 years, so you can imagine that actually took a lot of time to sort through all of that. It’s been crazy, but well worth it.”
When Girardin, a relative of Skinner’s who owns his own film studio in Oklahoma, agreed to join the crew, the film had virtually no budget. RAW donated a couple thousand dollars to help the crew with airfare and research, but the rest of the film’s budget came from a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.com, which successfully raised $6,000.
The crew used some of the funds raised for promotion, including posters, advertising, and T-shirts. The remainder of the money will be used to enter the RAW documentary in film festivals throughout the next year.
The interviews that make up the film’s storyline are spliced by picturesque montage scenes set to a donation-based soundtrack with songs by Jack Johnson, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and local band Simple Jack.
Another big donor to the film is Bob Pearson of Arrow Surfboards, who built a number of boards specifically for RAW over the years. These include boards with chairs installed for participants, and extra-wide boards less prone to tipping over. The process of shaping a RAW board is shown in the film via a scene donated by a videographer for Arrow Surfboards who captured Pearson in action.
Pollack says the can-do attitude of Ride a Wave’s volunteers and staff dispels the myth of what children with disabilities can and can’t do. She adds that one of her favorite aspects of the documentary is that it captures that feeling.
“In media and movies you hear people say things like, ‘so and so is wheelchair-bound or suffers from autism,’ and in our film you never hear those words,” says Pollack. “You never hear somebody saying a kid has suffered from this or that disability. You almost don’t even see that they have disabilities in the [Ride a Wave] film. … We’re not hitting you over the head with this emotion, or tugging at your heartstrings saying, ‘Pity these poor kids.’ You’re not seeing ‘these poor kids,’ you’re seeing these kids having a blast.”
One year at RAW, Pollack had a student who could barely walk on even ground without holding onto someone’s hand. Pollack remembers that after the girl rode a surfboard, she walked up to the person with the clipboard, on her own, and said, “I want to go again.”
“It’s an empowering thing,” says Pollack. “When you have a disability it’s hard to go fast doing anything, so to catch and ride a wave, it’s a very powerful feeling.”
Pollack adds that the film also dispels some preconceptions about California surf culture.
“All you hear on the news or media is people saying certain things about surfers,” she says. “But with [RAW] you see a side of the California surf culture you never see in the media; these people are so generous. They always talk about the aloha spirit of surfing, and I learned what that means: you want to share your love and your stoke for the ocean with other people.”
Pollack, Skinner, and Girardin want the RAW documentary to touch people throughout the Santa Cruz community and beyond.
“I think it shows that you can take something you’re passionate about and become so much more passionate about it, if you can share it with someone else,” says Pollack. “When you see your love of your art through someone else’s eyes, maybe you stop taking for granted how good you have it.”
‘Ride a Wave: Live and Love it Up!’ screens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 18, at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz.
Tickets are $10/adv, $15/door. Tickets available at Streetlight Records and ticketweb.com.
Photos: Major Skinner