I see too many documentaries that follow the standard format of talking heads telling a straightforward story, interspersed with montages of photos and archive footage, so I'll admit that my heart sank in the opening moments of Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton. When Hamilton began talking about his childhood, I wondered if I could really take a 118-minute portrait of a surfer told in such a mundane way, but against all odds, Rory Kennedy's film won me over. First of all, it was Hamilton himself who chipped away at my defences. He's undeniably a fascinating individual; a man with a huge ego and an insatiable need to be the best in his field. He has always lived slightly apart from the surfing mainstream, refusing to enter into competitions because he rejects the judgement of others and instead deciding to find his own path and seek out his own challenges. Other surfers interviewed here talk with predictable reverence about him, but Take Every Wave is no mere hagiography. The same obsessive drive to dominate that makes him a champion also makes him the kind of man who goes against the grain, alienating friends who were once part of his tight-knit team by dropping them for a more lucrative solo sponsorship deal, and causing friction among surfing purists with his constant innovations. Hamilton's approach to surfing has evolved through tow-surfing, in which a rider is led into a wave by a jet ski, to foilboard surfing, which involves a hydrofoil under the board that allows the surfer to glide above the water. This strand of the film, exploring Hamilton's considerable impact on the sport of surfing, is what elevates it into something more compelling than a standard biographical portrait. Of course, Take Every Wave has all of the spectacular footage that one would expect to find in a surfing documentary – and Hamilton's legendary conquering of the monster wave at Teahupoo in 2000 is indeed jaw-dropping – but Kennedy isn't willing to settle for spectacle. Her film is an illuminating study of recent surfing history, and a compelling look at what it means to be completely consumed by an ambition to be the greatest, and to dedicate your whole life to that goal. Now in his 50s, Laird Hamilton's body has been ravaged by injuries and arthritic joints, giving him a lopsided shuffling gait, but he is still going out every day in search of the biggest waves. If he can walk, he can surf.
An remarkable physical performance is at the heart of Bobbi Jene too. We are first introduced to the dancer Bobbi Jene Smith as she practices naked in a studio, and nakedness – both physical and emotional – becomes a central theme in this strikingly intimate film. Her first question to a colleague after demonstrating a new dance she has choreographed is whether she should perform it naked or not when the time comes to present it to an audience, and it seems that revealing herself completely through her dancing is the key to her art. When she talks about dancing she talks about feeling the need to come or to vomit, as if dancing allows her to purge something from within herself, a full-bodied approach that she developed under the tutelage of Ohad Naharin during her ten years at the Batsheva dance company in Israel. Bobbi Jene captures her at a pivotal moment in her life, having just turned 30 and feeling that it's time to return to the US and to strike out on her own as an independent choreographer. This pursuit is complicated by the fact that she has just fallen in love, with 20 year-old Israeli dancer Or Schraiber, and so Elvira Lind's film tells two stories, with the director attempting to shape them both into a single compelling narrative. Unfortunately, I was much more interested in one of these stories than the other; in fact, I could have used a lot more footage of Bobbi developing her performance, although we do get some intriguing insights, such as the way she presses herself against walls to develop a level of resistance in her performance, or the complete lack of self-consciousness or embarrassment in her work as she masturbates with a sandbag. (This frankness is interestingly contrasted with her mother's awkwardness at watching her perform.) The back-and-forth with Or, as he prevaricates over moving to America with her, just doesn't hold the same intrigue, and the attempt to include both stories often leaves Lind's film feeling shallow and shapeless. Still, Bobbi Jene herself is a engaging, down-to-earth character who is a pleasure to spend time with, and there's something inspiring and moving in watching the physical lengths she'll go to just to try and communicate something through her art. I'd love to see her performing live.
Denis Côté's A Skin so Soft allows us to spend time in the company of half-a-dozen Canadian bodybuilders. Sometimes we watch them doing the things that you'd expect bodybuilders to do – working out, posing in front of a mirror – but often we just watch them do the same everyday things as anyone else. We see them playing with their kids, eating their cereal, watching TV. Côté maintains a certain objective distance as he observes these strangely sculpted creatures in their domestic lives, and it's hard to know what exactly we're supposed to take from these nicely composed but largely uninteresting scenes. A few moments stand out, notably a shot of one muscleman wolfing down his breakfast while he watches something on his laptop, when he suddenly, inexplicably, starts to cry; and there are amusing moments too, like one subject's fumbling attempts to record an aggressive pre-competition message for a team of rival bodybuilders. But we never really get to know much about these men and I found my interest waning a little as the film moved into its final third, although Côté does shift gears late on when all six of these hitherto unconnected men come together for some kind of weekend camping retreat. This part of the film, like a couple of others, left me wondering how much of what we're seeing in the film is pure documentary, and how much has been carefully crafted by the director. That's just one of the nagging questions that this curious project left me with.
In Tonsler Park, the medium dictates the form. On November 8th 2016, Kevin Jerome Everson took his 16mm camera to a number of polling stations around Charlottesville, Virginia and he captured a reel's worth of footage, with the finished film consisting of these single takes. The camera is mostly a static observer, pointed at one of the volunteers or election officials as they sign in voters, hand out ballots, answer questions. Often the image becomes obscured as somebody steps between us and the subject of the camera's gaze, but Everson never shifts for a better angle. He simply invites us to sit patiently and watch the workings of democracy for eighty minutes; to realise that while Clinton and Trump ate up every second of media time, it's these ordinary people doing their civic duty who really matter in an election. It's a simple film, but our own knowledge of what happened in that election and what happened over the subsequent year adds an inescapable poignancy and gravity to its images. Almost all of the volunteers and voters that we see in the film are black, and few could have expected that they would be waking up the following morning to news of a Trump victory; fewer still would have imagined that torch-bearing Nazis would be marching on their own streets within the space of a year, and would receive tacit Presidential endorsement as they did so. In a year when all norms and values in American politics seem to have collapsed, a film like Tonsler Park feels particularly valuable.