Documentary explores China’s budding Olympic surfing program Port Townsend Film Festival

When someone thinks of the sport of surfing, the typical image that comes to mind is of long-haired Californians riding
West Coast waves.

Breaking from that mold, directors Jessica Chen and Jeremiah Bogert Jr.’s new documentary “Surf Nation” observes the daily lives of athletes within the Chinese national surfing team as they pursue their dream of competing in the 2020 Summer Olympics.

The documentary will be screened at this year’s Port Townsend Film Festival.

At the time, Chen and Bogert were both working for The Los Angeles Times before first learning about the new surfing program.

“The existence of the surfing program in Hainan was reported on a little bit in the media; I first heard about it in a magazine article,” Bogert said.

Considering that there were only around 100 surfers in total in Hainan, China, a decade ago, Bogert and Chen saw an opportunity to cover the relatively unknown program with an open perspective. The creative gears started churning for the two as they brainstormed the idea of ​​covering the team in a documentary-style medium.

“We pitched it as an idea with the LA Times for a documentary, and they weren’t able to do it,” Chen said. It wasn’t something they could see or actually do so we decided to do it on our own.”

The two weren’t dismayed by the rejection and continued on with the idea, reaching out to coaches with the program and eventually making connections before deciding to fly out to Hainan, which is China’s southernmost province. A tropical island brimming with waves and mostly empty beaches, the locale made for the perfect surfing team headquarters, and also a great spot for filming.

“We used vacation time and got on a plane and went to Hainan,” Bogert said. “I think Jess and I really both took a traditional journalist’s view when it came to this [the film]no agenda and not trying to make a film that said X or Y about China.”

After arriving and making their introductions, it took a little while for Bogert and Chen to forge a friendship and connection with the coaches and athletes.

“That took a second because they’re young teen kids who don’t see a lot of Western people with cameras every day,” Bogert said.

Peter “PT” Townend, an Australian surfer, mentor, and world champion, was hired in 2016 to become the first coach of China’s Olympic surfing team.

“He had this idea to develop a curriculum, elements of Chinese gymnastics and Western surf culture, a blend of these things,” Chen said.

While Chen and Bogert brought an open-minded angle and approach to the story, the two expected the strict Olympic academy structure to clash with the individualistic and care-free nature of surfing. But both were surprised by what they found.

“Before we got there, I had an idea in my mind what a sports academy might be like … we sort of showed up thinking there’d be some friction there,” Bogert said.

“It was a really amazing opportunity for them and a chance to bond. There was essentially a dorm for them, and they were pushing beds together and looking out for each other,” Chen said.

During that time, the filmmakers met two interesting surfing prospects, Alex and Lolo, who brought two contrasting perspectives to surfing and the academy.

“Alex for the most part, was 16 or 17; he was the best surfer. There were others close in age to him who wanted to take that top spot,” Bogert said.

As one of China’s best surfing prospects, Alex’s rebellious personality clashed with the strict training program and his coaches and leaders.

In contrast, Lolo, who was
19 or 20 during the filming of “Surf Nation,” brought a less competitive but more passionate approach to surfing. As a true soul surfer, she honed in on the spirituality of the sport while also dealing with personal conflicts with family outside of the water.

“She was kind of over the competition. For her, surfing was more about feeling good, and being in touch with the natural world,” Bogert said.

Anchoring the story as the two central characters, Alex’s and Lolo’s struggles with balancing the surf life with pressure to perform and family expectations give viewers a true look at the sacrifices made by the two to pursue their passion for the nautical sport.

“I’d say we were really open to this story. I also think this was for me an opportunity to tell a story of identity and felt unique and different, this film about modern Chinese people,” Chen said. “I had always been interested in sports in China with my background.”

Discussing some of the films and documentaries that influenced them and their creative process, Chen and Bogert highlighted “Minding the Gap,” a 2018 documentary following three men bonding through skateboarding and dealing with family and adulthood in the Rust Belt.

“There are a lot of parallels, when you watch it and think about skateboarding… figuring out what you want in life [and the] comparisons around that,” Bogert said.

To learn more about “Surf Nation” and Chen and Bogert, go to surfnationfilm.com.

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