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- Henry David Thoreau

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Athletes

May 04, 2017

Taylor Steele’s Latest, Proximity: Creating a Longer Lifespan For Surf Films?

Fighting back against the webisode culture, this legendary filmmaker has brought together some of the world’s most talented—and interesting—pairs of surfers for his highly anticipated latest.

WRITTEN BY

Alyssa Fowler

Today is Proximity’s world premiere in NYC and no one is more unsure about what people’s reaction will be than Taylor Steele himself.


“I’m curious to see if people gravitate towards it or completely reject it,” Taylor Steele told The Outdoor Journal. “And that’s a fun place to be as a filmmaker, to wait and see.”

Although we imagine that’s something Steele’s gotten pretty used to.

Both the cameras and font choices having changed a little bit in the past 25 years.

Since the early nineties, more specifically the release of game-changing Momentum, Taylor Steele has created surf films that inspired and motivated generations, playing a definitive role in surf culture. They were made with shitty cameras, an aggressive style of both filming and surfing, and set to a soundtrack of punk rock that kickstarted the careers of bands like Blink-182 and The Offspring. Although in complete contrast to the more aesthetically pleasing surf movies at that time, they also happened to capture soon to be legends like Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Taylor Knox, Ross Williams, Shane Dorian, and others before their accomplished surfing careers took off.

Decades later, the technology has changed, people’s attention spans have shortened and Steele’s back at it:

“I haven’t been doing very many surf films lately, more commercials with a shorter window of filming and production time. Even in the last 8 years, I haven’t invested that much time beyond a 2 week window.”

His film Here and Now was filmed entirely on May 2nd, 2012. One day.

Behind the scenes shooting Proximity. Photo by Nathan Myers

However, he says that “the concept of something that has a longer lifespan sort of steamrolled into this project.”

A longer lifespan than the 30 second viral videos that we’ve become accustomed to—often made by anyone with a GoPro attached to their head?

Yes.

“It’s how we watch surf films right now. I think just having so much access to them and watching them on the internet is a major factor of us just getting numb. We treat it as sort of temporary. And sort of disposable. And so that was part of the inspiration for this, to make something that has a basis, or something that will hold up for longer than a year.”

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Having so many aspects (art gallery, photo book, theatre tour and even virtual reality), was all part of giving the film a longer breath.


The whole movie’s tempo is sort of an anti-webisode.

Needless to say, the technical advances in equipment have given way to some pretty cool opportunities for filmmakers to rejustify putting time and quality in film—and how effective it can be. The use of 4K RED cameras in John John Florence’s View From a Blue Moon reminded us all of the value in such raw and beautiful footage. Although, we imagine that should be the case with them costing around $50,000 a pop.

Using RED EPICS in Proximity, Taylor also says that despite the quality of these cameras where everything is “so shiny and sharp, I like them to feel more like film, so we use some older lenses to counterbalance that.”

True to Taylor Steele form, it’s not the cameras that set this film apart.

Almost as easy to carry as a GoPro? Photo by Nathan Myers

Slowing down the pace and trying to dig a bit deeper, Proximity merges two generations of surfers: four surf icons and four wildly talented young-guns. Steele pairs them up based on personality and talent, takes them to remote and often candid locations, then sits back and observes. We’re looking at 11-time world champion Kelly Slater and current champion John John Florence in the South Pacific, 6-time women’s world champion Stephanie Gilmore and eco-activist Dave Rastovich in Baja, big wavers Shane Dorian and Albee Layer in Chile, and stylists Rob Machado and Craig Anderson out of their comfort zones in cold Northern Europe.

All (shivering) smiles from Rob Machado and Craig Anderson. Screen shot taken from Proximity trailer.

“The idea of merging two different generations that have the same sort of ethos was something that inspired me as more of a surf fan. Being a fly on the wall and seeing what they would talk about. Seeing how they would surf, if and how they would push each other and inspire each other. Would it be in a super competitive way? 

One of the big parameters of getting surfers involved in my projects is that they have to have much more than just being a surfer.

“If we mic them up and sort of get out of their way, what would happen? Would they talk about anything interesting?

“So we did that with Shane and Albee. We were just in a pub in Northern Europe and they were playing darts and talking. And what they talked about was so inspiring. I was sitting there and forgetting that we were even filming, just listening to their conversation about dealing with big waves for the next 20 years. Shane saying ‘I’m almost done with my career and you have 20 years of putting your life on the line! How does that feel?’ It was their answers to these types of questions. They were generally curious.”

“They have so much to talk about that no one else would be able to really relate to. I wanted to see how those conversations would go.”

Despite anticipating all the interactions in the film, we were especially curious about both the competitiveness, and also the playfulness that might have come out of Kelly and John John on their first trip together.

“It’s interesting that you picked up on that playfulness. John just takes that playfulness to another level. He’s sort of like a little brother, antagonising, but at the same time super curious about him [Slater]. It was fun to watch. To have them on this remote island in the south pacific where it was just them, not worried about any other filmers showing up, or not worried about any other surfers…

Checking shots during the making of Proximity with John John Florence and Kelly Slater. Photo by Nathan Myers

We actually had Kelly and John John playing chess and see these sides of competitiveness, but also just talking casually. John comes off as very laid back, but he’s as smart as anyone. He reads chess books. It was fun to see this side of him that doesn’t come up in a lot of other places.”

It turns out there are actually moments where Taylor Steele’s not behind the camera and Kelly Slater’s not in the water. Photo by Nathan Myers

Also going way beyond Steele’s expectations were Stephanie Gilmore and Dave Rastovich.

“I have always been a huge fan of Steph, especially in the way that she holds herself. She plays music, she has a guitar, she’s a great traveller with a great spirit.”

Being the only female in the film, Steele wanted to put her in a category she deserves—for both the incredible person and surfer she is. Hoping Dave Rastovich would be a fit turned out to be a pretty good call.

“Their conversations were some of the most profound and interesting. Talking about people and how to live life and how to approach situations. I felt like at the end of these car rides and conversations that they had together, I was evolving as a person. I was really surprised at how connected they were in spirit.

There’s a lot of great women surfing out there, but they don’t necessarily carry themselves as well as Steph does. Or make me excited as a filmmaker. I think when people watch the film, they’re going to be blown away by how great she surfed and comes off as a person.”

And tonight is the first chance for people to be blown away! The film premieres first in New York City, followed by tour dates around the world over the next year.

All Teton Gravity Research tour dates in North America & Europe here, Australia & New Zealand by Garage here.

Head to the Proximity website for more information about the film or to Taylor Steele’s website to see what else he’s up to.

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May 25, 2018

The African Hawaii

In São Tomé, a small African country, a surfer witnesses the growth of one of the youngest modern, alternative surf scenes in the world—an indigenous surf-riding culture called “corre-barra” by the locals.

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WRITTEN BY

Franz Orsi

I am sitting on a steep ground overlooking a nicely shaped right-hander rolling in shallow pristine waters over a slab punctuated by sea urchins and corals. Around me, a bunch of local kids approximately eight or nine years old screaming for every wave coming in and talking to me in Portuguese, commenting on how they could have caught that wave as any surf dude from any other place on Earth would do. I suddenly realized then that I just happened to arrive in one of the liveliest surf community I ever met in my life.
As we speak about the surf, a bunch of other kids appear from behind the cliffs, paddling through the channel on some very special boards. Those boards look very flat and thin. As they get closer I understand that what they’re riding is actually a local version of a bodyboard made of wood. “Corre barra! Corre barra!” the kids around me started to shout. I ask what it means. They explain it to me by pointing at the young surfers in the water. As we keep on watching the scene we see a bunch of young kids dropping on every wave with their rudimentary boards. It is surfing at his very infancy—I thought.

The surf scene on remote São Tomé is as extraordinary as its setting is exotic. I spent part of my summer surfing the perfect point breaks of São Tomé together with a small bunch of local surfers who grew up catching waves on their wooden tábuas and are now ripping on regular but usually obsolete foam boards, mostly left behind by the few Portuguese surfers that happened to pass there.

The island is a former Portuguese colony. It’s now half of the tiny twin-island African republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, the smallest country in Africa after Seychelles, sitting some 300km off the coast of Gabon. The islands present themselves to the traveller as a small African version of Hawaii, which to some extent they are, with volcanos, lush green vegetation and shallow point breaks. The only difference is that the roads are terrible and the electricity is scarce. Here tourism remains an afterthought, which made it all the more intriguing to me.

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I was there not only because the waves in São Tomé were so good but also because I wanted to witness with my own eyes the vibe of this tiny African Hawaii where the invention of surfing, as I later learned, happened independently from anywhere else in the world. Yes, São Tomé as Hawaii has been one of the cradles of surfing. As for many other inventions in the history of civilization, similar discoveries happened independently in different parts of the world.

It was Sam George who first witnessed this independent invention of surfing in São Tomé. When he visited the island in 2000, the Californian surfer intended to “pioneer” its waves; what he found instead was an indigenous surf-riding culture—well and thriving—“corre-barra” as the locals call it. “Corre-barra” as I later learned literally means “ride-wave”. Wave riding, as we know it. And it has a long history on the island. No one knows when this tradition started, but kids on São Tomé had ridden hand-carved bodyboards on their bellies for as long as anyone could remember. It is just part of the local culture as much as fishing or dancing.

After that first visit to São Tomé, Sam George returned to the island in 2006 to make a film about this incredible discovery: The Lost Wave: An African Surf Story. What he found during his second visit was a small bunch of locals that started to carve their own surfboards out of wood and learned to ride on their feet. As he and his film crew left modern boards behind, a small stand-up surf community on São Tomé emerged. Surely it can be considered one of the youngest modern surf scenes in the world, but with a very long history coming from decades or even centuries of “corre-barra” tradition.

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Such state of transition (or coexistence) between “corre-barra” and modern surfing created an interesting dynamic within the local community. As kids learn to ride waves on the traditional wooden boards, using them almost as bodyboards and then trying to stand up from time to time, they also climb the ladder of the local surfing community. A certain hierarchy applies here: as kids evolve in their “corre-barra” skills they also start to be entitled to use more regularly one of the few modern surf boards spread over the local surf community. The foam boards stock is limited so it is carefully managed within the community. Sharing is key in São Tomé.

Witnessing the growth—and the stoke—of one of the youngest modern surf scenes in the world it was for sure some of the most interesting experiences in my life. As my days on the island were running by, I got to know virtually everybody involved in this lively surfing community. From the pioneers, like Chum, the king of the point break of Porto Alegre in the South, to the boys of Santana, who grew up riding waves on their wooden planks and now became progressive young surfers with no less talent or style than any Californian or European young gun. Their names are Jejé, Danilk, Zezito, Ailton, Assis and Edu. I started to spend my days with them, inside and outside the water, getting more and more interested in their stories and ultimately witnessing their growth as surfers and young men.

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While I was there with the boys of Santana I got to know that they were granted the chance to participate at the ISA Junior World Surfing Championships to be held in Azores, Portugal later in the year. A few surfers from Portugal who came across the surf scene of Santana – the surf capital of São Tomé – and got to know the local young guns impressed by the pool of talent and stoke decided to raise money and find sponsors to help these guys live their dream and bring them to compete at the World Championships. You can just imagine how excited these boys were about that. This was the first time travelling outside the country for them, and of course the first international surfing competition. And that was definitely what they dreamt about for all their lives. As for myself, I ended up booking a flight to Azores as well to meet them again in a few weeks’ time and to be a first-hand testimony of this modern surf fairy tale of the boys who learn to surf on some wood planks that were now going to the World Championships. That was a historic moment for surfing and a touching one for me and for all the people who helped to make it possible.

It’s not important to talk about the Championship here. History was made. And I believe that surfing benefited from getting in touch with the youngest modern surf scene in the world and for sure the one with more stoke. And vibes.

Long live the “corre-barra” tradition and to the history of an alternative surfing culture in Africa. I got back to my place with my mind full of images of stoke, happiness and loud laughs on and off the water. Long live the “corre-barra” because at the end of the day, we may find out that surfing was indeed first discovered in the Black Continent and that indeed “the best surfer out there is the one having the most fun”.

Images: Franz Orsi and Vania Marques

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