Why you need to catch up on HBO surf doc ‘100 Foot Wave’

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“100 Foot Wave,” which started Sunday on HBO and will run for five more weekly episodes, is (mostly) the very vivid, very engaging and idiosyncratic story of surfer Garrett McNamara and his quest to surf the most big waves possible. It is also the story of a place, the people who live there, the people who came there, and the surf that breaks there. If you’re looking for a docuseries that has nothing to do with crime or cults – well, there is cult, briefly – and can leave you feeling better than worse about it. human animal, this could be your wave.

Assembled by director Chris Smith (“Operation Varsity Blues”) from years of material from a wide variety of sources and unified by a watery score by Philip Glass, it’s a poetic and philosophical adventure story that concerns a lot of things besides surfing. , which are also things that surfing talks about: humans in nature; recklessness and responsibility; fear and fearlessness; science and spirituality; friendship and competition; dependence and independence; fun and obsession; planning and what cannot be planned; possession and sharing; civic education, time, age and always, potentially death. Much of it takes place around a spectacular rocky promontory under an abandoned lighthouse on the coast of Portugal, in the town of Nazaré, on the world’s wildest surf, in an element where people are not meant to be. – are literally made not to be.

“It feels like you’re at the end of the world,” says Andrew “Cotty” Cotton, a surfer (and plumber, when we meet him) from Devon, Britain, who figures prominently in history. “It’s raw.”

Although McNamara has made a name for himself as a big wave towed surfer – a system by which the surfer is pulled by a jet ski to where the surf is insanely big, and is also pulled out – and although As parts of that story have been told in the mainstream press, including an episode of “60 Minutes,” he doesn’t seem like the surfer most likely to get a six-hour documentary built around him. But maybe that’s just why it’s worth the time.

Bill Sharp of the World Surf League describes him as “somewhat acceptable to the surf industry, but for the most part … a maverick doing his own thing.” No matter what crowd he’s in, he stands out. It can be alarmingly intense, disarmingly childish. Relaxation takes effort. He is both very focused and very absent-minded; he will investigate a situation and then throw caution to the wind. “I have a really amazing ability to forget and ignore the information that comes into my brain,” says McNamara. “I have a lot of hard drives out there full of things that I never access and don’t even remember. “

It wasn’t until his then-girlfriend (now wife and manager) Nicole Macias discovered a years-old email chain with Dino Casimiro – a Nazaré resident who found McNamara online and wrote: ” Can you come and see if my wave is big and fine? ” – that he finally went to Nazaré; Yet it was his sense of mission that convinced a skeptical surfing world to take him seriously. They told him that “it was a big, mushy mushburger, that it was not really a wave,” McNamara recalls. “It hurts.”

Surfing big waves. (The waves get bigger.)

(HBO)

Like most quest sagas – for a grail, for a whale – “100 Foot Wave” is less about the object of the quest and more about the person seeking it. There’s a twist to the oft-told story of the aging warrior wearing his armor, or inflatable survival suit, for one last battle (although “last” is a word that doesn’t make sense here). McNamara was already 43 when he arrived in Nazaré in 2010; at 44, he rode the biggest wave ever, measured at 78 feet, a record that held until Rodrigo Koxa improved it, also in Nazaré, to 2 feet six years later. (Last fall, Portuguese surfer António Laureano, who grew up watching McNamara, may or may not have surfed a 101-foot wave; nothing seems official yet.)

Although McNamara is the center of it all, “100 Foot Wave” is really an ensemble piece; what distinguishes big wave surfing, especially as they understand it in Nazaré, is teamwork. Surfers, citizens, government officials – it was also a civic enterprise, meant to attract businesses to the city during the winter months favorable to waves and tourists – are navigating the learning curve together. Among the main actors are Nicole and her brother CJ Macias, a surfer and beach volleyball player that Garrett invites very early in the project; they’re articulate, charismatic on the big screen, and offer a perspective on what looks like madness. (“I’m super responsible,” says Nicole. “The most irresponsible thing I’ve ever done in my life is to be with Garrett.”) There’s Cotton and his Irish partner Al Mennie, to whom McNamara contacted very early, as if out of nowhere, as he struggled to build a crew.

You’re not invited to treat any of them as grotesque or more fun than they claim (so often a hallmark of high-platform docuseries). It’s not like the world of surfing is free from controversy or nonsense, but the people we meet here speak generously, or at least with discretion, where friction can actually exist. Competition enters history late and, unlike many sports documentaries, is never really the point. “We could wonder about the need for trophies in surfing,” explains Justine Dupont, who holds fifth place in the biggest wave surfed. “The real trophy is to receive this wave.” For Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira (fourth largest wave to be surfed), Nazaré was “the first place where I didn’t feel judged by being a woman in the water”.

Because cameras are the lifeblood of the sport – photos and movies are how waves are measured, how surfers build career brands and what has created and cemented the community since before “The Endless Summer” – there are pictures of everything. When someone tells the story of an epic ride or wipeout, it was captured on camera, from the shore, from the water, from the board (front and back angles) and from the air – and much of it is of high quality. The surf itself is elegant and spellbinding; no special effect is so special. “To come down a giant wave is to dance with God,” Koxa says, and looking at her you feel he might be on to something.

And because his tracks have been shot over many years, the time element is introduced, highlighting the question of whether Garrett, who twice becomes a father after arriving in Nazaré, will find his wave while he is still able and eager to surf it. , or if it will come out of the eternal cycle of injury, recovery (mental and physical) and injury of the surfer. (“It’s like being in a car accident for a good minute,” says young surfer Kai Lenny of the pounding that an ocean can deliver.) During “100 Foot Wave,” McNamara will be on multiple occasions. and badly beaten. , and return several times to the water.

“I don’t know when big wave surfers finally say they’ve had enough,” Nicole said stoically, with a little edge. “I have not seen it again.”

“100-foot wave”

Or: HBO
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Evaluation: TV-14 (may not be suitable for children under 14)


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