By focusing on cultural barriers rather than killer waves, director Adam Pesce has created a compelling surfing documentary in “Splinters.” The film explores life in the remote Papua New Guinea island of Vanimo, where surfing is considered not just the most important of sports, but the only real means by which young men and women can get off the island and see the world. The film climaxes in Papua New Guinea’s first national surfing competition, the winner of which will get to compete against world-renowned surfers in Australia.
The most interesting sequences in “Splinters” do not revolve around who wins the competition, but who will be allowed to participate. There is a great deal of tension between the island’s two surfing factions: the Vanimo Surf Club and the Sunset Surf Club. The groups’ rift began nine years earlier when Vanimo’s best surfer, Angelus, was competing for them at an event in Fiji. After the competition, Billabong offered Angelus a contract to surf in Australia, but he never got to go. Angelus claims that Vanimo Surf Club did not properly fill out the paperwork given to them, and this is why he is still stuck at home.
Angelus thus broke away from the Vanimo Surf Club and with his friend, Steve, formed the Sunset Surf Club. These two clubs now fight for the loyalty of young surfers and the respect of the village. Quite talented and not at all modest, Angelus calls himself “The King” of surfing, but believes that the next king will be his protégé and friend, Ezekiel. Ezekiel does not buy into Angelus’ self-imposed ‘King’ status and believes that he could win the competition himself. Both Angelus and Ezekiel are members of the Sunset Surf Club, though, and despite their friendly rivalry, they possess a genuine brotherly affection.
Tensions between the two clubs reach a fever pitch when Angelus’ ex-wife, Julie, decides to go to the police requesting Angelus’ unpaid alimony. There is no doubt that Angelus should pay these bills, but it is quite suspicious that Julie decides to bring up this issue just a few months before the national surfing competition. Further complicating the matter is that Julie’s brother David, is the founder of Vanimo Surf Club. Sunset Surf Club founder Steve is suspicious and believes that David is simply trying to keep Angelus from surfing in the competition. Angelus says that he will take care of the alimony issue, after which he promises to exact revenge on Vanimo Surf Club.
Viewers going into this film expecting a straight-up surfing documentary in the style of “Step Into Liquid” or “Riding Giants” will be disappointed, but the politics and social elements of “Splinters” are worth sticking around for. For example, a compelling side plot in the film involves the surfing sisters, Lesley and Susan. Women are not well respected in Vanimo culture. When it is proposed that a woman should be the Vice President of Vanimo Surf Club, David protests this greatly, claiming that women are beneath men and no man should have to take orders from a female. Both Lesley and Susan hope that a victory at the competition will allow them to leave the island and gain financial independence. As things stand, men in Vanimo are allowed to buy women and make them their brides.
The film’s final sequence revolves around the competition and there are a lot of great shots of surfing during these scenes, especially by Angelus, Ezekiel, Susan and Lesley. The film’s enduring appeal, though, is as a fascinating sociological study of life away from the trappings of our technological modern culture. “Splinters” reminds us that ambition and longing for a better life are relatable themes for people of any culture or nation. [B]