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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Girls Can't Surf

This Aussie documentary overflows with frank, determined and inspiring women recounting their quests for equality in surfing from the 80s onwards.
By Sarah Ward
March 11, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
March 11, 2021
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Exploring the gender imbalance in professional surfing, especially during the 80s and 90s as women in the sport were starting to attract the world's attention, Girls Can't Surf feels like a floodgates-bursting documentary. Watching female stars of the era talk about their experiences, including the vast disparity in prize money between men and women and how that affected their efforts to make a living, it's easy to see this candid and detailed film setting a template for a wealth of other movies. As fans of any type of women's sport well and truly know, differing treatment, pay, sponsorship and levels of respect aren't restricted to hitting the waves. Indeed, as the doco's high-profile parade of talking heads offer their thoughts and recollections — such as former world champions Frieda Zamba, Wendy Botha, Pam Burridge, Pauline Menczer, Lisa Andersen and Layne Beachley — many of their words could be uttered by any number of female athletes in a wide range of fields. That truth doesn't undercut the doco's power, or downplay what women surfers have been through. Rather, it underscores the importance of continually shining a light on the way the sporting arena has routinely sidelined, undermined and devalued anyone who isn't male.

"If you can't see it, you can't be it" is one of Girls Can't Surf's resonant and universal sound bites, and it's easily applicable far beyond the film's specific stories and the sport in focus. Indeed, when Beachley talks about how she used to mill around surfing contests as a teen starting out in the field, and annoy the ladies she'd soon be competing against, you can see those words in action; if earlier generations of women hadn't already been hanging ten, Australia's seven-time champ wouldn't have had any footsteps to follow in. The film is filled with astute insights and telling connections such as these. It all leads to the well-publicised recent development, only back in 2018, of equal winnings for men and women being mandated by the World Surf League from 2019 onwards. That happy ending benefits today's stars, such as Stephanie Gilmore, Tyler Wright and Carissa Moore, but it came too late for Girls Can't Surf's interviewees. Once again, knowing that significant change has finally come to the sport doesn't diminish the potency of hearing about the horrors, struggles and rampant sexism that female surfers endured for decades.

Smartly, two-time feature surf documentarian Christopher Nelius (Storm Surfers 3D) brings those tales to the fore, and the people sharing them. Girls Can't Surf positively overflows with frank, determined, inspiring and engaging women telling it like it is about their time in surfing's spotlight. From Jodie Cooper's memories of being the first openly gay woman on the world tour, to Jolene and Jorja Smith's recollections of discovering that the pivotal Huntington Beach OP Pro was dropping its women's competition but keeping the bikini contest, there is no shortage of anecdotes that paint a despondent picture for women who were simply trying to chase their dreams. Learning about how, even if the conditions were too flat for the men, the ladies were still forced to surf instantly demonstrates how little standing they received from the sport's powers-that-be. Seeing Menczer explain that she got by via a combination of sleeping in her van and relying on the kindness of people she met on the tour — which continued after she became world champion — is just as galling. So too is the behaviour of surf brands when they cottoned onto the obvious idea that women's board shorts would be a hit, flirted with sponsoring actual surfers to help promote them, then put their dollars towards models instead.

Even clocking in at 108 minutes, Girls Can't Surf gives the impression that a plethora of other tales about surfing alone — and just from the women that it chats with — could easily have made the cut. It probably could've extended its running time with more 80s and 90s archival footage, too, spanning the fluoro outfits and big hair that particularly marked the former, as well as more shots of Zamba, Botha, Burridge and company putting the surf scenes in the likes of Point Break and Blue Crush to shame. Just like standing on a board and taking to the sea, however, this is a film with a keen sense of balance. Working with co-writer and editor Julie-Anne De Ruvo (Morgana, Bump, Why Are You Like This), Nelius helms a zippily paced doco that's dense with information, absolutely infuriating in the specifics it thrusts forward, but also fluid and savvily structured. Wanting to hear and see more is a hardly unexpected side effect when the pool of appalling incidents, and the women who weathered them, runs so deep. Every one of the feature's interviewees could fuel their own movies, in fact, so fingers crossed that eventually comes to fruition.

Girls Can't Surf does sport an air of familiarity on several levels, but this is the rare film that doesn't suffer whenever it wades into overtly recognisable waters. Nelius definitely doesn't stir up a storm format-wise, but the material, themes and subjects all ride their own waves — so deviating from the fairly standard mix of talking heads and retro clips is hardly necessary. Bringing to mind similar female-focused works such as 2019's Maiden and 2020's Brazen Hussies, plus Australia's sizeable history of surf features and documentaries, never proves a distraction either. When it comes to rousing movies about women defying the odds and fighting for equality, and about taking to the ocean in general, more are always welcome. The same sentiment rings true with Girls Can't Surf's soundtrack, which makes ample use of Joan Jett's 'Bad Reputation' and Bikini Kill's 'Rebel Girl' as seemingly every second flick about spirited or pioneering ladies does. Hearing those ferocious tracks with frequency — this month's teen empowerment comedy Moxie uses the latter prominently as well — in on-screen accounts of women wiping out barriers is a nice problem to have, after all.

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