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<i>Riding Giants</i>: New Film Puts Audience in the Surf - 2004-08-07

Let's ride a barrel! Hang ten! Get goofy-footed! How about, surf's up? Most of us have never heard these expressions. But certainly the people depicted in the new documentary film 'Riding Giants' know the meaning. They're surfers and they ride giants - giant waves that is.

Twenty-three meter waves rise out of the surrounding ocean, curl over and crash down with unimaginable power. It's an awe-inspiring spectacle. But most amazing of all is the surfer out there: a small speck against the monstrous curve. He's Laird Hamilton: the greatest big wave surfer of all time. Until a few days ago, I had never heard of Laird Hamilton, the 30 something all American boy who grew up on the shores of Hawaii. But now I have, thanks to a two-hour documentary about surfing called Riding Giants.

(Surfer #1) "It almost doesn't help sometimes to know what you're doing out there. Because if you know too much it intimidates you."
(Surfer #2) "Everything is moving. Everything is in flux. Nothing is constant. It's so dynamic that you can't pre plan it."
(Surfer#3) "Not only you're riding down this mountain but this mountain is chasing you and you have to use all your skill and all your ability to get away from this mountain but at the same time to use to your own benefit."

Surfing was a counterculture lifestyle in the 1940s and 1950s. It began with a few young men in Southern California who were quickly drawn to the birthplace of surfing: Hawaii. In the earliest days, the so-called 'surf bums' lived a vagabond life.

(Surfer #1) "No watch, no money, no car, no nothing. Just shorts and a T-shirt."
(Surfer#2) "You had guys sharing the place and getting mattresses from the Salvation Army and throw[ing] them on the floor."
(Surfer#3) "If we wanted to eat we had to go diving."
(Surfer#4) "We dive everyday and get fish and lobster. Turtle in those days."

The seemingly carefree surfing lifestyle went in direct opposition to American mainstream values. But in 1959, surfing suddenly became mainstream when Hollywood popularized the sport in the movie Gidget, a film about a 15-year-old girl who loved surfing.

"Surfing is out of this world!!! You just can't imagine the thrill of shooting the curve. It positively surpasses every living emotions I've ever had!!!!"

After the release of Gidget the number of surfers grew from 5,000 to about two million. Surfing became lucrative. Surfing magazines came on the market. Surf shops opened up all over the place. And with each passing decade, surfers found ways to modify their approach or equipment to allow them to ride larger and far more dangerous waves sometimes with tragic results.

(Surfer #1) "We were heading back in a boat toward the harbor and I saw something, kind of looking like a big clump of something. We stopped the boat and just realized that it was Mark Foo. It was a really eerie eerie experience and just so chilling."
(Surfer #2) "It went from the most pleasant, beautiful, sunshiny day to dark. The wind came up and it was just one of our surfers. One of our own was gone."

So, why do people keep taking to the waves? Documentary filmmaker Stacy Peralta presents the answer to this question with an insightful look into surfers' natures. Riding Giants recounts the history and growth of the sport with a keen eye and occasional humor. You hear from the early pioneers of the sport, as well as from today's big-wave riders. And the cinematography is spectacular. This two-hour documentary probably won't be a box-office hit. I wasn't too keen at first on seeing something about the sport. But Riding Giants is a truly refreshing, unpretentious film. It puts you on beautiful beaches where you can almost feel the pounding waves, the wind and the salt air. In the end this movie offers something that has nothing to do with the sport: It's about the greatness of the human spirit and the deep faith that surf enthusiasts seem to share.

"If you applied the same amount of devotion to a religious pursuit, do you think anyone would call you a religious bum? Probably not, when you consider that surfing really is, more than anything else, a faith. And devotion to that faith becomes paramount in your life. There is no such thing as a surf bum."