Australian Surf Movie Festival: The Immersion Tour
“I’m pretty much the only touring surf movie festival that travels on an annual tour,” says Tim Bonython, the director of the Australian Surf Movie Festival, which is visiting around Australia in April and May. Bonython takes a brief break from surfing at NSW’s Avalon Beach early on a Saturday morning to discuss the festival, which this year celebrates ten years. “I’ve made sure that this one is going to be pretty special. It’s one I’ve been working towards for years, with a lot of very unique footage, and I’m pretty excited about how it’s going to end up.”
The two biggest inspirations behind Bonython’s choice of career were Bruce Brown’s 1966 surfing film The Endless Summer, and David Elfick’s 1975 film Crystal Voyager, with its combination of visuals and music from Pink Floyd. Bonython grew up in a creative family. His father owned a couple of art galleries, one in Adelaide and one in Sydney. One of their clients was radio announcer John Laws, and Bonython was dating his daughter. He saw a movie camera on the floor, and asked to borrow it. Laws said, ‘If you can make good use of this camera then you can have it.’ Bonython took the camera to Bondi and started shooting.
That was pretty much it, he recalls. “I love the ocean. When I was living in Adelaide it was pretty much like no surf at all. And so I discovered surfing, and I’ve used that movie camera to the best of my ability. Just to capture a great moment on film and to show it to the world is a really satisfying experience,” he continues.
In 1991 he was commissioned to shoot the Rip Curl Pro event at Bell’s Beach. “That was the beginning of everything, because really that was the biggest surf ever,” he elaborates. “And I was just really lucky to be there. I documented that and took it back to Adelaide, showed it at the Victoria Hotel. We had a crowd of hundreds turning up, lining up around the hotel, and way down the street, and I was pretty much born into the business of showing surf movies on the big screen.”
Bonython has also dabbled in music videos, having shot videos for The Screaming Jets and Midnight Oil. But capturing big swells and champion surfers in action remains his passion. In 1998 he shot some incredible footage of the swells off Jaws Maui in Hawaii. He turned the footage into the documentary Biggest Wednesday, which became one of the biggest selling surf videos of all time in Australia. And that was the kernel that eventually grew into the Australian Surf Movie Festival. Bonython would travel around the country with a projector and a PA system in the back of his car, showing his footage at pubs and clubs. He would charge the proprietors $150. Now the Australian Surf Movie Festival screens as part of the Big Day Out, and regularly plays to sell out crowds.
Bonython has spent six years putting Immersion Tour together. The project actually had its genesis back in 1996 when he started recording interviews for what was going to be the definitive documentary 13-part series called What Is Surfing. But being the impetuous sort, he would start shooting before he actually had the financial backing and had lots of footage that he needed to show somewhere.
2012 is the tenth year of the Australian Surf Movie Festival, and Bonython aims to make it really special by showing some of the most incredible big wave footage he could lay his hands on. The show consists of two 50-minute halves, with an intermission featuring live acoustic music from some young up-and-coming musicians and door prizes.
The first part features some incredible footage that immerses audiences in the whole surf experience, says Bonython. “This film is not all about big crazy waves, it’s not about guys riding surfboards – it’s more about what surfing is, and that is really just riding a wave. It doesn’t have to be on a surfboard. You can get the most incredible thrill just by bodysurfing. Some of the most spectacular surfing I’ve ever seen and documented has been on a body-board. Body-boarders get some of the most incredible barrels and do some of the most exciting manoeuvres. And there’s a five minute segment that I’ve put aside specifically for this film.”
The second half of the program looks at 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, who is a household name, and also a good friend. “He’s phenomenal,” enthuses Bonython. “He’s not just an incredible surfer, he’s what they call the full package; he’s everything you could ever want an athlete to be and more. I mean, how many champions in any sport have 11 world titles under their belt? We thought when Mark Richards won four world titles that that was pretty amazing, and was never going to be done again. And not only that, he’s incredibly intelligent, he’s a good-looking bloke, and obviously the girls like that, and he’s a great ambassador for the sport. So in a film like Immersion you want to document the world’s greatest surfer. I’ve been following Kelly for the past 20 years of my career. Last year I had the privilege of documenting him down at Australia’s premier large slab wave in Tasmania, and when you get the opportunity of documenting Kelly it’s a treat. You know you’re going to get some great footage.”
BY GREG KING
The Australian Surf Movie Festival is travelling all over Australia throughout April and May. The Immersion Tour comes to Victoria in early May, where it will play at The Espy on Thursday May 3, Rosebud Cinema on Saturday May 5 and ACMI on Sunday May 6. For more information or ticketing details go to the website at asmf.net.au