The past few years have seen a boon in the number of documentaries that focus on senior citizens out to prove it’s not age that matters but state of mind. It was Doris “Granny D.” Haddock in Marlo Poras’ Run Granny Run, a chorus of elderly folks who tugged at the heartstrings of Stephen Walker’s Young @ Heart and a group of more than a dozen 60-plus dancers that became the NBA’s first senior dance team in Dori Berinstein’s Gotta Dance. There are a few more that can be added to that list for sure, but few that will make you feel as invigorated and inspired as Doug Pray’s Surfwise. Through his account of 85-year-old surfer Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz and his brood of sun-loving, adventure-seeking children, Pray crafts a documentary that challenges the conventions of age and the idea of the American Dream.
For Paskowitz everyday was a day at the beach. As son Adam says, Doc found his “swan song” when he first encountered waves along the shores of California. It was at the age of 13 that Paskowitz moved to San Diego and made his first attempt at surfing, learning from a local deaf-mute lifeguard. But this is only one of the interesting tales that surfaces in the documentary’s 90-plus minutes. With stills, home video and his own footage, Pray takes the audience on a trip through the life of this unconventional doctor and his unconventional home life.
The story is about more than just an 85-year-old surfer; it’s about his ideas, passions and the way he chose to live his life—traveling the country in a small RV with his wife and nine children in tow. If ever a person demonstrated that America was the land of opportunity, it is Paskowitz, who exemplifies the ideals and desires of the country, but finds his own way of reaching that destination. In these ways, the documentary is similar to Pray’s earlier work, which documented the Seattle rock scene (Hype!), hip-hop (Scratch), the art of graffiti (Infamy) and the lonely road through the eyes of long haul truck drivers (Big Rig). It is with these “outsiders” that the documentarian seems most comfortable. It is with these “outsiders” the Pray is able to showcase what is often a misunderstood undercurrent of society. Surfwise is no different.
On the eve of the documentary’s limited release, Pray spent some time reliving his visits with the Paskowitz clan and explaining to MM why his heart lies in the documentary genre.
Mallory Potosky (MM): Dorian Paskowitz was originally resistant to being the subject of a documentary. Why were you so persistent in pursuing him and his story?
Doug Pray (DP): Because it was a great story that was entertaining and relevant: A guy who actually pursued his dreams and has lived strictly according to his principles for his entire life, and made his nine children do the same. Usually people just talk about dropping out of society; the Paskowitz family lived it and I had access to all 11 of them (who are wildly entertaining on camera) to tell about it. For a filmmaker, this was a rare opportunity.
MM: He was so against the film that he refused to see it, is that right? Is that still the case?
DP: If he was really “against” the film he wouldn’t have participated at all, but since it so candidly portrays his children’s reactions to their upbringing, it might not be something he’s eager to relive. At the world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, I found him sleeping on a bench outside the screening. At this point, I literally don’t know if he’s seen it or not. I’m honored that I got to know him, and that he granted me the interviews and footage. If he decides never to watch the movie, it’s his choice. His wife, Juliette, and the rest of the family have embraced the movie, and Doc has been honorable about press requests and supporting the film in a general way.
MM: Your previous features have covered the Seattle rock scene, hip-hop DJs, graffiti and long-haul truck drivers—all often misunderstood subcultures that have reverberated throughout America. The Paskowitz family lifestyle and surfing can also be considered as a subculture. What do you see in these subjects that makes for a great documentary?
DP: Though this was never a conscious decision, so far all of the subjects of my films have definitely been underdogs and generally misunderstood by the media or society at large. They’ve all made decisions to do something different, they are all fiercely independent and they all have a lot to say, but are often frustrated with how the media has portrayed them. That frustration, or that gap between what’s real and what’s perceived by outsiders, becomes a problem that I want to solve in my films by celebrating these individuals and getting into what they really do and why they actually do it.
The musicians in Hype! felt exploited and packaged in a way that was the antithesis of what inspired them to begin with; the DJs in Scratch felt like they’d invented hip-hop (they had), but had been left behind by rap culture; the graffiti writers in Infamy—all of them—were profoundly misunderstood by society, yet are incredibly complex, dynamic characters; and it’s the same with the truckers in Big Rig. Surfwise is different because it portrays one family and one story, so it has a more singularly emotional story arc. But once again, surfing culture is so rife with stereotypes and expectations that it’s a joy to smash them to bits with a family who is so unique.
MM: What was your goal when delving into the past of the Paskowitz family? What did you want people coming away from this documentary knowing?
DP: I wanted them to be entertained (that’s my first responsibility as a director), and hopefully inspired by Doc’s mission in life: The pursuit of true health. But I also wanted them to deal with all the profound questions raised by the Paskowitz story. The movie leaves you wondering: Was it heroic and good for Doc to raise his children in such an extreme way, or was it selfish and short-sighted? These fundamental questions of freedom and authority affect all parents and children to varying degrees. With the Paskowitz family, it plays out on an almost biblical level.
MM: How long did you spend with the Paskowitz children in filming this documentary?
DP: For each of the nine Paskowitz children, all of whom are now grown, I did one major in-depth interview and tried to film “a day in the life” with them. We also filmed lots of footage at the world-famous Paskowitz Surf Camp, went on a tracing-his-roots journey to Israel with Doc, Juliette, Jonathan and Josh and filmed the family getting together in Hawaii, among many other things.
We filmed for about five weeks total, spread out over a four to five-month period. To that we added loads of gorgeous footage that Doc had shot in the 1960s and ’70s (Super8 and 16mm film and hundreds of black-and-white photos). Filming docs (and Doc) is easy; what’s hard is cutting them, because you’re editing a feature and writing a feature script at the same time. Figuring out the balance between all of the different stories of the children, and all the divergent ideas that Doc delves into—everything from his philosophies about sex to eating like wild animals to the Holocaust—took almost a year to contend with for my editor, Lasse Järvi, and me.
MM: Did you find they were willing to talk of their experiences openly?
DP: Thanks to the way they were raised, absolutely. I felt lucky about this. The family members are all so open and candid. Even if dealing with painful material, they were just great subjects. Anyone who’s met the Paskowitz’s (and there’s a lot out there), knows what I’m talking about. They are a very dynamic group of people.
MM: At the end of the documentary Dorian says, “It’s easier to die when you have lived than it is to live when you haven’t.” Do you find that he still feels this way and lives his life by this principle?
DP: Yes. No risk, no gain. Despite all the extreme tactics and serious issues the family has confronted, I think the ultimate message is very inspiring. Pursue your dreams! (…just not at any cost)
MM: Your career has led you to many a film festival, earned you numerous awards and exposed you to a variety of locales and people—all obviously exciting aspects of being a documentarian. But what keeps you making films based in real life?
DP: Though maybe someday I’ll find a script I love and make a dramatic feature, I don’t like inventing stuff out of thin air. You just can’t write the things that are already out there. There are worthy stories everywhere you look. I personally believe that if you dig deep enough, you can make a feature-length documentary about any human being on the planet. It’s all there—drama, love, hatred, humor, frustration, inspiration, conflict. I also am quite addicted to the wonderfully-creative process of writing by editing. When you’re cutting a documentary, and you have great music, great characters and quotes, great B-roll (scenic or other relevant footage) and a meaningful or entertaining story to tell, you’re fully creating an as-yet unwritten experience for an audience with all of the final elements that will be that scene. Composers, writers, actors all experience this for sure, but it’s a total rush to create a scene right then and there and know that is the final experience your audience will have. (Unless you decide to throw it away and recut it three weeks later, which you surely will.)
Surfwise is in theaters now.