Surfwise opens with Juliette, the Paskowitz matriarch, providing an introduction to her family. As she prepares to list all her children, she casually notes that for ten years she was either pregnant or breast-feeding "without one day off." She then lists the name and year of birth of each of her nine kids: eight sons -- David, Jonathan, Abraham, Israel, Moses, Adam, Salvador Daniel, Joshua-and one daughter - Navah. The adult siblings each provide a defining sentence or two to sum up who they are and what position they occupied in the family. The first born David tells us, "I am what Gabriel was to God," while Navah simply says, "I'm not a brother, I don't have a dick." And baby Joshua says of his father that he simply wanted "to repopulate the world with Jews, that's f-king hardcore man. I know skinhead people like that." So with this brief introduction, Surfwise is off and running.
While outside observers and the press often viewed the Paskowitz family as eccentric, different and even radical, Doc took offense at such labels because he felt he and his family were the "most conventional of people." Well yes and no. Yes in the sense that his children were raised in strict Jewish tradition, complete with Shabbat on the beach every Friday night. And yes in the way Doc ran his family with an iron fist and had more rules than the typical middle class kid probably grew up with. But it was the type of rules that reveal a far less conventional side of Doc. For instance, sex was a topic always open for discussion. Doc told his daughter that she just needed to let him know when she was ready to have sex and he would get her on the pill. And son Salvador comments that "Most parents say & 'Go to school. Don't go swimming with sharks, that's dangerous. Our parents said, & 'You can go swimming with sharks, but you're not f--kin' going to school-that sh-t's dangerous!'"
So Doc home-schooled all his children and kept the family almost constantly on the move. They surfed everyday (some of the boys become championship surfers), and were forced to adhere to a strict diet of organic food with no sugars or fat. The now grown children recall that to other kids they seemed to have a dream life - no school, traveling to exotic places, surfing all the time. But without exception, all the children eventually fled the family and all harbor some level of resentment for being forced to live life according to Doc's rules. Son Israel sums up the emotions best when he comments that his dad is a "very special person... who I love and respect but don't understand."
In a way, Surfwise is the perfect companion piece to Into the Wild . While Chris McCandless died trying to live a utopian life in the wild, Surfwise suggests what might happen if you successfully pursued that way of life. Both films focus on people who experienced a privileged life and chose to chuck it all to live a freer existence. For Doc that meant abandoning all material possessions and forcing his wife and kids to live without a home and without anything more than the most basic of belongings. Doc sought self-fulfillment by taking up a nomadic lifestyle, and that lifestyle seems to suit him perfectly and he doesn't express any regrets for choosing that life for himself. Yet the children do have some regrets. For one son, who dreamed of being a doctor, he discovered that never having set foot in a school made that dream pretty close to impossible to achieve. And yet in the interviews, the children all come across as bright, articulate, and successful. So maybe some of Doc's theories about child-rearing were right. In the end, the children hold a certain grudging admiration for their father, and can call upon happy memories of being such a close-knit family.
Filmmaker Doug Pray tackles the material of the Paskowitz family with energy. He tries to endow the film with the same kind of editing and graphic style of Dogtown and Z Boys . Surprisingly for a family always on the road, there are quite a few photos and home movies to help Pray document their journey. As in Dogtown and Z Boys, Surfwise tries to breath life into still images with frantic editing and camera moves. For the most part this works in creating a lively visual style for the film.
But what makes Surfwise fascinating are the raw emotional moments that Pray is able to capture. One of the most riveting occurs when eldest son David plays back a song he wrote expresses his feelings about his father. The essence of the song is that his father's death may be the only thing that will free the son. As David starts to sing along with the old recording, he breaks out into a sweat and gets a demonic look in his eyes as if an old anger suddenly possessed him. He shuts off the music and says he can't listen any more. That moment proves powerful in defining the complex mix of emotions that runs in the Paskowitz family.
The surfing Paskowitz clan (family photo)
Frequently down to their last dime, the Paskowitz' journey does prompt us to consider what's of value to us. There is much in what Doc did that seems to have been good but there was also a selfish and unyielding quality about him that made compromise impossible. Although Doc assumed what has been called a surfer's lifestyle, Doc's personality reveals little of a surfer's laidback, relaxed attitude. In an odd way, he seems to bring the driven, competitive mentality of the world he was rejecting into the casual life on the road he wanted for his family. The irony for Doc is that he insists all he ever wanted was to have his family close by him yet at 85 only his wife remains by his side. He kept his family near him when they were young, but the film reveals that the family as a whole has not been together for years. In fact, one of the things the film moves toward is a family reunion. There's some false tension built up about whether or not the reunion will occur but I think you can guess what happens.
Surfwise (rated R for language and some sexual material) is sometimes a little self-serving, allowing both Doc and his children to make their case and work out their issues on the big screen. But no one seems timid about being honest and open about his or her life and about depicting Doc in a very multi-dimensional manner. In the end, Surfwise is a fascinating portrait of a family that manages to be both radical and conventional, divided but still tightly bound by blood. They are a beguiling mass of contradictions. (Also note that Paskowitz lived in San Diego for a time and ran a Surf Camp at one point in Mission Beach.)
Companion viewing: Into the Wild, Dogtown and Z Boys, Capturing the Friedmans