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Riding Giants (2004)

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 101 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 12a

Following the financial success of 'Dogtown and Z-Boys' (2001), which traced the rise and fall and rise again of skateboarding, director Stacy Peralta's next documentary turns its attention to another boarding activity that requires balance, brazenness and bravado in equal measure. 'Riding Giants' is a history of surfing, showcasing its techniques, its heroes, its subcultures and its significance as a branch of human endeavour – but its focus is not on the recreational tube-riders that can be seen on any tidal beach, but on the surfing fanatics who have devoted their entire lives to catching the biggest, most dangerous waves that the world's oceans can throw at them.

After a brief, hand-animated pseudo-newsreel outlining '2000 Years of Surfing in 2 Minutes or Less' (including Captain Cook's description from 1777 of native Polynesian surfing), 'Riding Giants' concentrates on three surfing luminaries who all took the sport to new extremes at different stages in its evolution. The first is Greg Noll, nicknamed 'the Bull', who in the late fifties and early sixties led a small handful of surfing obsessives in Hawaii “to attempt the impossible” in riding bigger and bigger waves, sparking off a mass exodus of Californian surfers to Hawaii and presiding over the boom that followed. Second is Jeff Clark, who in 1975 discovered a monstrous surf off Maverick's near San Francisco, and (amazingly) rode it alone for some fifteen years before he was able to convince others that there were swells in Northern California every bit as huge as in Hawaii, thus reviving the craze for big wave riding. The third is Laird Hamilton, an extreme sports enthusiast and surfing innovator regarded as “the greatest rider there ever has been”, whose discovery and mastery of 'tow surfing' (where riders are dropped into previously inaccessible offshore reef systems by jetski) has enabled surfers to take on gigantic waves ranging from an incredible fifty to eighty feet in height.

Painstakingly edited together from extensive archival footage as well as new material and an impressive number of surfer interviews, 'Riding Giants' tries to get to the bottom of what drives people to drop out of conventional life in their relentless pursuit, at great personal risk, of the next big wave. It can be the adrenaline rush, it can be facing up to one's fear and the testing of one's limits, it can even have an erotic dimension (Noll refers to the surf at Waimea as “my girl” and speaks of his “full-on love affair that took place over 25 years”) – but for most of the big wave riders, their vocation is best described in spiritual or religious metaphors. “They must have thought they'd found Nirvana”, says one interviewee of the first Californians to surf Hawaii's North Shore, while others stress the almost monastic dedication of those 1950s pioneers (who lived in poverty and “never saw girls”). Noll speaks of massive waves “sometimes requiring more faith than skill”, while Laird's friend Dave Kalama asserts that the confrontation between surfer and giant wave is “very purifying”, making you “call upon the deepest sense of who you are”. Such language may in isolation sound spurious or exaggerated, but there is something about the image of a lone, tiny figure emerging from a vast maelstrom of water and taking nature for a wild ride – a spectacle seen repeatedly in 'Riding Giants' – that has power enough to fill even the most cynical of viewers with the kind of open-mouthed awe that is supposed to be the sole province of the church.

It's Got: Small surfers and very big waves.

It Needs: Mo wax.


This narly doco shows that big wave riders are life's fanatical crusaders while the rest of us are just life-bums. Surf's up!