An Interview with Filmmaker Elizabeth Pepin Silva I Introducing the Super Stoked Surf Mamas of Pleasure Point

Introducing the Super Stoked Surf Mamas of Pleasure Point was selected for the 7th Annual NY Women's Surf Film Festival 2019. Directed by Elizabeth Pepin Silva. Introducing the Super Stoked Surf Mamas is a story about friendship, pregnancy and surfing. Through surfing and a love for the ocean, the five women become friends. So when they all become pregnant around the same time, it is natural that the women turn to each other for support and encouragement. Ignoring people who tell them to stop surfing while pregnant, the women decide instead to listen to their own bodies and continue doing what they love -- just with some extra precautions and modifications.

The women in the film discuss the challenges they face as their bellies grow bigger and their wetsuits no longer fit, but also the joy of being in the water with their unborn child inside them experiencing the ocean together as one. Once their babies are born, the women face new challenges in dealing with their changed bodies and the responsibilities of caring for a needy little one. Finances won’t allow any of the women to pay for child care, so instead they once again turn to each other, creating a surf mama group so that half the mamas go surf, while the others watch the kids – and then they switch off.

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Where did you grow up and where do you call home now?

I grew up in San Francisco and the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area - with the exceptions being the 2 years my family lived in Brussels, Belgium as a child, and another 2 years as an adult in London, England. We moved around a lot when I was a kid, but since San Francisco is where I have lived the longest, and the city that had the most influence on my life, that is where I call my hometown.  However, my home is Ojai, CA, where my husband and I have lived for 8 years. It’s a tiny semi-rural town an hour south of Santa Barbara. I am 20 minutes from some pretty amazing surf spots. 

 What is your earliest surf memory?

Probably at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, California, which is where my family’s house was soon after I was born. We lived just a few blocks from the ocean, and I’m sure smelling it and hearing its roar from my bedroom fostered my life-long connection. Later on, when I was 21, it was the beach where I learned to surf, even though it’s considered a very challenging surf spot and nearly everyone who surfs there for any length of time has a story about almost drowning. I definitely have almost drowned there! 

 How did you get started in filmmaking and photography? And as a female photographer and filmmaker how have you seen your industry evolved in the past decade? 

I’m putting these two questions together as the answers go hand in hand.

 In high school I taught myself how to use a camera and work in the darkroom. My grandfather loved taking home movies with his super 8 camera and he is the one who taught me how to use it properly. In college I created a music fanzine and shot photos to accompany the stories I wrote, so that’s probably when I really started to understand how to document things visually.

 I started surfing in 1985 when I was 21, at a time when there were few women surfing in Northern California. The surf magazines at that time pretty much ignored the few women who were surfing, and when they did show a woman, it was almost always a shot of her sitting on a beach in a bikini. I can't ever recall seeing a photo of a woman actually on a board in a surf magazine during this time. Fast forward to 1994, and women's surfing in the US really started to take off, but the surf magazines weren't reflecting the change and seemed to be ignoring this whole new potential audience. The extremely thin, young, white, bikini-clad beach babes that appeared in the pages of the surf magazines and in ads did not reflect the large numbers of women I saw taking to the waves and I found it very disrespectful.

 Dismayed by the portrayal of women in the surf media and surf industry, and, increasingly, in popular culture,  I decided in 1995 it was time to create an alternative to what was being shown by offering up a more realistic look at women's surfing, through a series I called WaterWomen. I wanted my photographs be positive portrayals rather than reinforcing stereotypes.  I started talking about it with my friend Margaret Kilgallen, who was an artist as well as a surfer, and she encouraged me to pursue my idea. In fact she pretty much forced the issue when she signed me up to be in a surf art show with her, and I hadn't even taken a single photo yet! So in early 1996, I began bringing my 35mm Nikon camera to the beach. I'd shoot photos after I surfed, walking up to women I usually did not know -- young, old, of all ethnicities and backgrounds, sizes and shapes, -- as they headed in and out of the water with their boards. I soon expanded from simple portraits and began experimenting taking photos with a 600mm long lens from the shore and swimming out with a water housing to capture the action in the waves.

 I was far too shy to get advice from the male surf photographers (I never saw nor was aware of any women surf photographers during this time) so I had to learn the craft through trial and error -- rather pricey in the pre-digital era of film. For a while, people were pretty surprised to see a woman surf photographer, especially in the water, and I'd get a lot of questions about what I was doing, but not as much recently as there are now quite a few women around the world photographing and filming surfing. It’s been an enormous pleasure for me to witness the explosion of women’s visual storytelling in surfing. The surf magazines are getting better, but they still have so far to go. But women aren’t waiting around for the surf media and industry to catch up, they are creating the change they want to see by making their own surf films, surf magazines, surf companies – and in your own case – surf film festivals.

 Initially the style of my shooting looked quite different from what was being shown in surf magazines, but by 2008 or so, surf culture began to make room for more artistic and creative imagery. I think this is great, and far more interesting because I get bored with straightforward surf photos pretty quickly. Lacking few women role models, my own imagery was initially inspired by early surf photographers Ron Church, LeRoy Grannis and Doc Ball, and my black and white and color photos range from documentary style to the abstract. II still like to shoot on film, and love to play around with film stock, weird cameras, and alternative processes. I am not at all into heavily Photoshopped surf photos or ones where the color is artificially enhanced beyond anything you’d ever see at the beach. Stop the Vibrance madness!

 Around the same time as I started photographing surf, I was hired at San Francisco’s public television station to work on a documentary and my boss Peter Stein taught me how to make PBS style films. By 2001 I had a solid understanding of documentary filmmaking, but it was always with a full staff behind me. So when my friend Sally Lundburg asked if I’d be the co-director/producer on the film she had started about the life Sarah Gerhardt, the first woman to tow-in surf and to surf Maverick’s, I thought it would be fun, especially since we decided to shoot it on 16mm and super 8 film. Neither of us had any idea what we were getting into. Making a film independently is very different than making a film for PBS with a full staff and a big budget. The film was called One Winter Story but it took us 5 years because it took us that long to raise the money and film enough of Sarah’s waves at Maverick’s. Even with all the challenges, I fell in love with making surf documentaries.

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 Since 1996, I have probably photographed and filmed nearly 1000 women surfers in the United States, Mexico, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. One of the most rewarding aspects of my women's surf photo project is being told by the women surfers I photograph how much they enjoy working with me, and that they think my photographs make them look beautiful without being exploitive. Some of the pro women I've photographed for jobs have told me they found it far more relaxing to work with me because I look at them differently with my cameras than the male photographers they've shot with. It is lovely to get that kind of feedback.

 What inspired you to make the film? 

It goes back to me being interested in telling stories of regular women surfers and what makes them be inspired to carve time out of their busy lives to get into the water. Super Stoked Surf Mamas is my third surf documentary. One Winter Story came out in 2006, and in 2015 I made a film with Paul Ferraris called La Maestra (The Teacher). It’s about the day in the life of a small fishing town in southern Baja that is also a great surf spot, and Mayra Aguilar, a young Mexican woman surfer and teacher who grew up there. A year after it came out my friend Katie Loggins called me up and said she had an idea for a documentary about a group of surf moms that she was a part of, and she wanted advice on how to turn the idea into a movie. Once she told me the story and added that Mayra, who by this time had married and moved to Santa Cruz, was part of the Mamas, I knew I wanted to make the film. I asked Paul Ferraris to join me and it took us a year and a half of production and the film was released in July 2018.

 How did you come to meet the riders in the film?

I met Katie in 2000 when I was hired by Las Olas Surf Camp for Women to come down to Sayulita, Mexico to shoot photos for their ads and website. Katie was one of the instructors there and we became friends. I met Ashley Lloyd Thompson around the same time while shooting surf contests for women surf magazines. She used to be a longboard pro. Mayra Aguilar I met in 2012 while on a Baja surf vacation with my husband. I was shooting photos and she paddled out. Her beautiful surfing immediately caught my attention. I met Jenny Bennett and Grace Gooch through Katie.

 The film celebrates how the ocean keeps these women connected to each other and themselves during major life changes, how does the ocean keep you balanced when life gets hectic?

What is weird about photographing and filming surf is how much it keeps you away from your own surfing! So I have to be mindful of making sure I get my own time in the water. Surfing is like Prozac for me. I really need it for my metal and physical well-being. Even if I just paddle out and sit on my board and don’t catch a single wave, I come out of the water feeling calm and happy. I find it a lot like mediation, which I also like to do. One of the reasons I decided to start surfing was because I lived in a city and it was a way to get away from people and leave my troubles on the sand. Now with the popularity of surfing it’s much more difficult to find a spot by yourself or with just a few people, but I’m really lucky to live in a place where that is still possible. I love my women surf friends but I also cherish the alone times when I have at a peak by myself.

 What do you hope the audience takes away from the film?

I really make documentaries with surfing in them, rather than surf films. In subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways, I talk about universal issues using the lens of surfing as a way to get into topics - such as the challenges of motherhood and the importance of community (Surf Mamas); the impacts of tourism on small villages (La Maestra); or the difficulties of achieving dreams (One Winter Story). The goal of both my photo and film projects is to make women, both surfers and non-surfers alike, feel better about themselves and to acknowledge them in a positive way as athletes and enthusiasts. I hope to act as an agent of positive change, dispelling myths and altering the way all women are portrayed in the media.

 Where are some of your favorite places to surf?

I love my home breaks along the Ventura coastline. It’s a miracle that there are still great surf spots in CA where you can find a peak all to yourself. I also really like surfing on Oahu, HI, southern Baja and in Japan.

 Where do you find your personal inspiration?

I find inspiration from the ocean and the way people interact with it – especially women. I am always fascinated by water and the people who are attracted to it, which is reflected in my films and photographs. The ever-changing light and mood of the water, the unique connection people have to the ocean, the challenges of shooting in such environments; I am inspired by it all. There is something really amazing that happens when I am photographing a surfer, especially when I am in the water swimming with my camera. It becomes like a dance between myself, the surfer, and the ocean – I am constantly watching for changes and reacting accordingly, adjusting my body, my camera, and my position in the water to synch with both the wave and the person riding it. When it all comes together as one, we create magic that is captured on film (or a digital file, depending on what camera I’m using). I am extremely interested in discovering why women decide to surf and in what ways the sport has impacted their lives. I'm just as interested in photographing a mom with 2 kids who carves out 1 day a week to surf as I am shooting or filming a seasoned pro. 

 What is next for Elizabeth?

I have eight film, photo, and writing projects going at the moment. It’s kind of crazy but it’s always the way I’ve worked. I am now making my films on my own without partners and currently working on a full-length surf documentary about the lives of two of the early women professional surfers in the US – Linda Benson and Joyce Hoffman. They were heralded by the surf industry and mainstream press as being the real-life embodiment of the quintessential surfer girl, but their real lives were very different from the one promoted in the surf magazines and advertisements. It’s as much about their careers as it is about exploring the promotion of the California surfer girl around the world. The other film I’m making is about backyard board shapers – regular surfers who decide to make their own boards without any outside help. I hope to have both out within the next two years – but it all depends on how long it takes to raise the money to pay for them. Money – or lack of money - always seems to be the biggest issue in making documentaries.

Join us for the 7th Annual NY Women’s Surf Film Festival in Rockaway Beach, August 9-11 at the Rockaway Beach Surf Club. We then head to Montauk, August 16-18 at The Montauk Beach House.