July 6, 2008

Taking It Home: Surfwise

Not quite the Von Trapp family of surfing...

[This is a new type of "review" that I'm trying out. Less criticism or focus on the technical aspects, production, or even plot of the film, and more focus on my personal thoughts on its themes and how they relate to my life. Essentially, what I took home from the theater - such is my reason for going in the first place.]

I assumed
Surfwise was a documentary about a family of surfers, seen above. That is all. I wasn't really intrigued, but I went anyway. "Oh, here we go," I thought during the first 15 minutes. "Another Stacy Peralta-styled documentary on surfing. Haven't we already seen this in Riding Giants and Step Into Liquid?"

Then something remarkable happened.
Surfwise quite suddenly turned out to not be about surfing at all - and then it turned out to be one of the best movies of the year.

Did your parents raise you right? Think about it, but don't settle on an answer. There is no answer. Everyone has a different definition of "right", and chances are yours is even different from your parents. But for the sake of argument let's assume some commonly accepted traits that would come as a result of "good parenting": responsibility, respect, resilience, determination, self-efficacy, motivation, etc. Easy enough to list, but that's not where it ends. How do you as a parent go about instilling these characteristics into your children? Again, there is no answer, and even if there were, the number of variable factors (environment, class, culture) ensure that no one method is appropriate for every family.

Dorian Paskowicz, however, thought he had found the perfect solution - by not only controlling those factors and avoiding social norms, but by completely removing his family from society. No home, no money, and no schooling. Just spending time as a family traveling around the world, nine kids and two adults "living" in a 24-foot camper for almost two decades. A grainy porridge was breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Dorian and his wife had sex in the same room as their children every night. Music and reverent Judaism provided the rhythm of family life. Beatings and a military mindset were commonplace, crying was not.

The one place the Paskowicz family did interact with the rest of the world was, ironically, out in the ocean. Surfing was a daily part of life and, from contest winnings and surf instruction, their only source of income (which they immediately rid themselves of). The family eventually opened a surf camp near San Onofre, CA, and each of the kids left the camper life as they grew into adulthood.

And here is where we find out if Dorian Paskowicz's method "worked."

Or rather, we don't. The kids are estranged from each other, and from their parents. They struggle with a sudden exposure to drugs and alcohol. They have trouble finding work and are pained by unrealized dreams and motivations as a consequence of never having gone to school. They've never lived in society.

There is much, much more to this story, but the heart of Surfwise really lives in that impossible-to-answer question: were the Paskowicz children helped or harmed by their socially deprived childhood? Keep in mind I'm speaking in relative terms and within the context of a "typical" American upbringing.

Director Doug Pray frames the film in a way that some would consider manipulative, but I thought was just fine. We're led to believe the kids had a wonderful, loving, carefree and worldly young lives. As the layers are stripped away, however, and we get more of the story from the now-adult children, the skeletons in the closet come tumbling out. At this point I became upset with Dorian Paskowicz, even though I knew I couldn't ultimately judge anything he did as "wrong".

Raising a family in a contrarian way is fine, and in fact, I hope one day to raise my kids outside of the typical social norms. But where do you draw the line? Let's talk about school, for example. I went to public schools my whole life (excluding college and grad school, but those don't count). Part of me thinks public schools suffer from poor teaching, impractical curricula and potentially dangerous peer pressure. But the rest of me knows that the social savvy kids get from going to these public schools is invaluable. There are pros and cons, but even in terms of home schooling, I find Paskowicz negligent. He wasn't actually "home schooling", and truly, all the evidence I need is the heartwrenching frustration shared by some of his kids. One wanted to be a doctor, for example, but was so far behind that he was still trying to achieve his GED in his 20's. He gave up his dream, and now he literally flips burgers at a fast-food joint.

What about life lessons on work or responsibility? In trying to teach his kids that they should work to live and live to work, and that they should avoid consumerism and American buying habits, Dorian Paskowicz almost put their well-being at risk. Deliberately living your life on hand-outs and gambles is not what I would consider responsible parenting. Sure, other cultures "live off the land", but they cultivate it, and for the most part, they do it out of necessity and not choice. The Paskowicz kids reported being malnourished and not even having enough clothing to wear on a regular basis. Lacking for these things may not have had any long term consequences on their lives, but in the short term it could have led to any number of problems that, again, could have been avoided had Dorian Paskowicz put his children before himself. As far as I'm concerned, if you deliberately bear nine children, you ought to meet their basic needs as much as your resources allow.

Surfwise offers a fascinating case study of a typical American family that took the road never traveled. Dorian Paskowicz was the man driving the camper on that road, and he can be equally thought of as a free-spirited and family-focused father of nine, or a paranoid king lording over his subjects and deliberately insulating them from the rest of society, with no plan for helping them assimilate to the outside world. He's both and neither; some of the Paskowicz children resent their father, while at least one of them has set out with his family and a camper of their own.

I could continue thinking and writing about all the questions raised by Surfwise, but I'll stop because as with all movies, it's best that you see it and process it on your own terms. Your definition of and experience with family is entirely your own, and different moments of this documentary will resonate with you (speaking of moments, the scene in which eldest son David is singing into the camera at his home is as emotionally raw as any other this year - including those in Young@Heart). See it with some other people and find out where the conversation takes you and if any of it relates to your own life experience. What will you take home?


  1. My God - "The Mosquito Coast" anyone?

    I like your experiment with a more personal take on a movie, Daniel. By all means, mix it up with your more traditional reviews. It's all good.

  2. oh i guess the part i'll add to the conversation is i'l go 'oh a doc'. and then not see it.see you in the other theatre... ;)

  3. Ok, I stopped reading at "turned into the best movie of the year." I have a screener of this sitting next to my TV but haven't gotten around to it because the release date for the local theater is August 1st. But now I think I'll have to watch it much sooner.

  4. Rick, it's a point of endless frustration that I don't make those connections as quickly as others do, so thanks for chiming in. The Mosquito Coast is definitely applicable here, BUT - Allie Fox was planning on a permanent move. He was setting up a new world out there. Dorian Paskowicz had no such plan. He must have known that his nine kids would have to exist in society and meet others eventually, but he did nothing to prepare them for it. His kids were raised to live in that singular environment. It's not even like the Amish where there is a community to carry on traditions. The Paskowicz family was completely and stubbornly independent.

    Thanks for the feedback, by the way. These "reviews" (I almost want to make them as review-less as possible) might flow a little more easily depending on the movie.

    It'll only take one, glim, and then you'll be HOOKED! Maybe. Yeah, they're not for everyone, but probably worth your money over something like Disaster Movie, which I'm sure you're not going to see anyway.

    Uh oh, the pressure's on, Evan. You'll be the one of the only other people I know who will have seen it. Just to clarify, I think it's ONE of the best movies of '08 so far. I'm scared to start making that definitive list so early. Definitely in the top 5 for docs next to Young@Heart, Up the Yangtze, Encounters, and American Teen. And I still need to see Gonzo and, thanks to you, The Singing Revolution.

  5. I enjoyed the new approach to your reviews, Daniel. Whether you'll be able to maintain this style or not, it was a welcome reprieve from the snark I read in most reviews, or the ones that need to relate everything to the director and camera lenses.

  6. I think this guy was on The Colbert Report and he totally manage to break Colbert several times. It was a GREAT interview.

  7. Daniel - I haven't seen this, so my comments must be based on your review alone. Still, it gives me some pause as to the benefit of the doubt you're willing to give this particular alternative lifestyle:

    "And here is where we find out if Dorian Paskowicz's method "worked."

    Or rather, we don't. The kids are estranged from each other, and from their parents. They struggle with a sudden exposure to drugs and alcohol. They have trouble finding work and are pained by unrealized dreams and motivations as a consequence of never having gone to school. They've never lived in society.

    There is much, much more to this story, but the heart of Surfwise really lives in that impossible-to-answer question: were the Paskowicz children helped or harmed by their socially deprived childhood?"

    It seems pretty apparent to me that the parents of these children abrogated their responsibilities to help these children realize their dreams. I'm not as concerned about their noconformity as their closing of doors. Every human being should have a chance to be nurtured and taught survival - be it in the wild or in society - as well as given gifts of parental knowledge and guidance. It doesn't appear that this happened here, and the alienation and disappointment you describe are testament to the fact that this so-called solution didn't "work." In fact, it wasn't a solution at all but abuse and neglect.

    I don't feel uncomfortable judging that this was wrong. Wild animals provide food, protection, education, and socialization opportunities to their young. It truly is the natural thing to do. What seems to have gone on here is aberrant. Natural selection would have gotten rid of Dorian Paskowitz long ago.

  8. That looks like quite the review, hopefully I can come read it soon, I really want to see the doc first, but if I have no chance on seeing it soon, I'll read it sooner rather than later.

    I did see it at a download place...perhaps I shall step over to the dark side just this once.

  9. Thanks a lot, Joe. I'll figure it out as I go along. For most movies I think I'd rather foster discussions about the broader themes more so than the technical details.

    k, I really appreciate learning of that interview - people should check it out. Jon is (I think) the third son and the producer of the documentary. He doesn't feature himself in Surfwise anymore than his other siblings, though. Colbert seemed a little stuck there a few times, didn't he? It's not so easy to ridicule someone's life when they're sitting right in front of you and not completely playing along.

    Very astute reasoning, Marilyn. What I meant by saying we don't find out if it worked wasn't to declare that it didn't. Rather, it was to say that we really just don't know. Despite some of the problems, some of the siblings still speak fondly of their childhoods. Part of it must be nostalgia, but it really is important to note that one of the sons is raising his kids in exactly the same way. Were it not for that fact and some other positive remembrances, I would be more comfortable out-and-out denouncing Paskowicz's decisions.

    But like you said, the kids were not trained to live outside of that environment. They had no idea what "survival skills" they would actually need. If Surfwise makes to you down in Chicago (if it hasn't already), I highly recommend finding time for it.

    No worries, Nick. I really stopped writing prematurely when I realized you could write about Surfwise for days. Better if you can just see it...somehow...

  10. I definitely will check it out if it shows up. I'm not impressed that one of the children is raising his family the same way. What I know of family dynamics is that different children will be assigned different roles. I'm imagining that the son who is carrying on in his father's tradition is actually the conservative preserver of the family, the one who does not rebel against dad. This role may have given him some protection as a child; certainly from a psychological perspective, he can feel safe in accepting and maintaining the world he knows--and pass the abuse along to another generation, which often is the fate of abused children.

    I also would attribute the positive remembrances to nostalgia and to the fact that it probably wasn't all bad and that there are, in fact, positive aspects of the life they led. It's healthy to forgive, and I hope these kids have done some measure of it for their own mental health.

  11. Wow, Marilyn. Sounds like you know what you're talking about! Did I read at another time that you work with children? This one is definitely up your alley.

    Well there's a bit about the movie that I didn't want to give away, Marilyn, but you infer as much with the second part of your comment.

    It may be in the way that Doug Pray structured the film or the interviews, but the impression you get is that there is almost as much "good" in this story as there is "bad".

    And one of the difficulties is that with nine kids there's just not enough time to get to know everyone. The oldest child, David, offers one of the most fascinating experiences. The one who is living in a camper with his family now is more of an enigma. We don't get to know him that well, so your assumptions might be right on.

  12. Yes, I do some child-associated work and am a bit of an autodidact in psychology. I'm working on bullying right now - what a quagmire that is! But back to the movies...

  13. Thumbs up on this particular style of review Daniel. I like the personal approach a great deal.

    I once considered doing two reviews of a movie, the first one covering the technical stuff and what it was about and whether it was any good and the second one being more about how the movie made me feel or what it made me think.

    Alas, it's all I can do to write one review of a movie so that's out the window.

    I do like this personal approach though and I'm glad to hear more about your appreciation of this movie. It's already come and gone from LA theaters so I'll have to catch it sometime down the road, but I aim to.

  14. Always back to the movies, Marilyn. Perhaps 2001's Bully - what a disturbing true story.

    Thanks, Craig. The two-pronged approach is an interesting idea that I'd love to see you take on, but I can completely understand why it hasn't happened yet. Might be worth a shot for a special movie like Pineapple Express. Seriously, though, your review of Shine A Light is one of my favorites of yours because of the personal background you gave. There's no rule that you can't rip one of those out every now and then. Summer blockbusters might not be the best time, though.

    Obviously I'd love to hear what anyone else thinks about Surfwise, so if you or anybody else comes across it or this post anytime, jump on in.


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