I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to watch Dear & Yonder, a documentary on female surfers by local filmmakers Tiffany Campbell and Andria Lessler. Yes, I did expect water. And ladies on surfboards. But many surf docs that I’ve seen tend to hold up surfers as supermen, and I half-anticipated something similar. I wasn’t prepared for the transcendent experience that followed.
Dear & Yonder’s opening sequence is a takeoff on the intro to Riding Giants, a 2004 documentary on big wave riders. While Riding Giants’ whimsical overview of surf history features nary a woman, Dear & Yonder’s version playfully highlights influential female surfers. It seems to smile benevolently at Riding Giants’ male-centric version of the surfing experience, and move on to its own purpose.
The meat of Dear & Yonder is a series of glimpses into the lives of female surfers and one group of skaters. Shot in beautiful 16mm and featuring a contemplative soundtrack, lots of slow motion surf shots, the film conveys the meditative, transformative aspects of surfing. Absent are the crowds. Competition is minimal. The commentary is funny. There’s less the sense that the surfers are conquering nature than enjoying it.
There’s a sweet piece on Davis family day at the beach, in which the parents taking turns surfing while the other watches their young son. There’s a fun story about a group of girls on a surf junket to Mexico. We meet Belinda Baggs, a longboarder who sews her own boardshorts out of recycled fabrics. Ashley Lloyd, a board shaper who uses environmentally friendly biofoam blanks. Liz Clark, a surfer attempting to sail solo around the world, in search of waves. Young surf stars on tour. A group of girls shredding the pavement in Arizona. Though the skating segment felt a bit incongruous, there was still something joyful about watching them fly down the winding blacktop.
Most touching is the story of Judith Sheridan, who bodysurfs not only the rough water around San Francisco, but the giants at Mavericks. Sheridan is humorously introduced as an unwordly creature; indeed it’s striking to watch her diving under four-story waves with nothing more than the wetsuit on her back. But, unlike the godlike surfers of some films, Sheridan doesn’t pop out of the head of Zeus, fully formed. On swim team the age of 11, she made her way to Caifornia at 37 to further her career as a geophysicist. She began ocean swimming and learned how to bodysurf, heading out to the biggest waves to avoid getting hit by boards and nasty comments. She seems to quickly earn the respect and admiration of the surfers (read: menfolk). Her remarkable story feels less like an exercise in kingmaking than an inspiration. When she recalls being diagnosed MS, it’s a kick in the gut.
Sheridan says what helps her now is looking back and realizing that she got a PhD, traveled around the world, and played with big waves, all with MS. “There’s never a time when you’re perfectly ready to start something new…you put yourself out there and see if you’re ready,” she says. Throughout the film, the subjects reflect on similar lessons learned. Liz Clark recalls her dad’s confidence in her abilities, and her fight to overcome her fear of sailing alone. “Without a schedule, or another person’s expectations, I was free to listen to my instincts,” she says. She delights at how few material possessions she needs. And, at some point, she realizes she doesn’t need to go around the world anymore–the journey itself seems to be enough.
The real gift of Dear & Yonder is its philosophy and its generosity. It’s not just inspiration for women, it conveys the reason that I think most people get into the water–getting out into that cool temple of peace, connecting with nature, and giving yourself space to think.
I left the Red Vic ready to surf. Or build my own house on Walden Pond.
Off to Golden Gate Park to gather twigs….