Wednesday, April 30, 2008

5/9: Surfwise

Dr. Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz introduced surfing in Israel, which is a pretty cool claim to fame. His unconventional approach to child rearing—or perhaps non-rearing would be more apt—is the focus of Doug Pray’s new documentary Surfwise (trailer here), opening in New York May 9th.

At one time Dr. Paskowitz was a pillar of the Hawaiian community, even considered a potential governor. Yet at the height of his respectability, he decided to drop out and raise his family—nine, count them nine children—off the grid as itinerant wave chasers. No school, just surf.

Surfwise sees Paskowitz as an idealist, bordering on a mystic, but it does not hide the dark side of his alternate lifestyle. To say his eight sons and one daughter had difficulty adjusting to conventional society would be a fair statement. The grown Paskowitz children now face very concrete costs for their unconventional upbringing, finding themselves unable to pursue certain ambitions because they simply lack the requisite education.

Watching Surfwise suggests some of the Paskowitz children should go into therapy, particularly Michael, the oldest. During their camper years, he served as his father’s chief enforcer. Now as an adult his rage seems barely contained at times. When he stares into the camera to sing his heavy metal ode to paternal neglect, it is skin-crawlingly uncomfortable. While Michael Paskowitz appears to have the most marks on his psyche, the other Paskowitz children have plenty of their own issues. The sole daughter Navah (#8) sounds distinctly disturbed to have heard her parents frequently engaged in the process of making more Paskowitzs.

Despite hearing from Dr. Paskowitz quite a bit, it is difficult to understand him. In an emotionally heavy scene he visits the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, where he becomes visibly distraught that he allowed such horror could befall others when was “at the peak” of his strength. Yet instead of engaging with the post-war world around him, such as it may have been, Dr. Paskowitz withdrew from society. It is a moment that seems completely at odds with his life choices, but the filmmakers do not press him on the apparent contradiction.

In some ways, the Paskowitzs have contributed to the society they shunned, most notably in the Paskowitz family surfing camp for which they are best known. Unfortunately, the camp faces an uncertain future during the course of Pray’s filming due to (big surprise) dubious management and questionable business savvy.

It is hard to know what to think about Dr. Paskowitz after watching Surfwise. Like his offspring, the film seems conflicted on the subject. Despite all the angst expressed by the grown children throughout the film, they can come together as a happy family in an almost anti-climatic third act.

Surfwise does broach some interesting questions about a non-conformist’s place in society. To its credit, the film even-handedly documents the consequences of Paskowitz’s choices. At least the surfing was good. It opens in New York May 9th (while I’ll be traveling, so go to a movie to fill the void) at the IFC Film Center.