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Momentum Generation
by Kathryn Loggins

A Documentary feature by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist

I’m not really a beach person and surfing has never really been my sport. I’ve always been much more attracted to snow and snowboarding, but watching Momentum Generation made me want to be a surfer. Seriously, I was so engrossed in this documentary that it made me want to be a part of it in real life. I’m not sure if a sports documentary has ever done this to me, or any documentary for that matter, but I was pleasantly surprised and it made me want to watch it again immediately. It did receive the second place Audience Award in the Documentary category at the festival, so I know I wasn’t the only person enthralled by this story.

I should say that it’s possible the reason this documentary is so engaging is because it’s not actually about surfing. Not really. It’s about friendship and family in the world of competitive surfing and how in the 1990s a group of young men changed surf culture with their competitiveness, dedication to one another and pure intentions. The players in this story are some of the most famous surfers in the history (not that I knew that before watching this): Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Shane Dorian, Taylor Knox, Taylor Steele, Pat O’Connell, Benji Weatherly, Kalani Robb and Ross Williams. But before these names became common knowledge, they were just a group of rough and tumble teenagers living together in a house in the North Shore of Oahu. This house was serendipitously located close to one of the world’s most dangerous places to surf: Pipeline. These boys all started there - crammed into this one house, living together, surfing together and gradually becoming the best in the world. 

Taylor Steele, one of the boys living at the infamous house, decided to occasionally stay out of the water and began shooting videos of the guys surfing the Pipeline. At the time mainstream surf videos were very boring, with slow sweeping shots set to classical or mellow music. Steele decided to cut his videos with a focus on action and wipeouts and set it to punk and rock music like Blink 182 and Pennywise. His videos became legendary, award-winning and changed the way mainstream media viewed surf culture. The success of these films launched the careers of the guys living together in that house and they were subsequently dubbed the “Momentum Generation”.  Steele is responsible for giving the directors access to his historic surf videos and all of the precious archival footage from the early days at the house.

The archival footage from that time is pretty astounding. These boys mostly came from pretty rough backgrounds and used surfing as a way to free themselves from their past. Most tell the story of finding true escape, meaning and purpose while riding the waves. And, while it’s fun to see the humble beginnings of these legendary athletes, the film has much more to say. The directors say this about the footage they had access to in their director’s statement: “… there was much more at play here than just archives. The bigger treasure for us turned out to be spending time with and learning from the experiences of the Momentum crew themselves. Even decades after they broke the sport wide open and hit the peak of their success, these guys still kept each other honest on a daily basis, challenged each other ethically and competitively, yet were there for each other with open arms in times of need. This tough love dynamic was immediately familiar to us as one we grew up with as competitive athletes and brothers. “

This sentiment really is the heartbeat of the film and the filmmakers really bring the stories of these men to life. The candid way in which each of these men are able to reflect on their lives, careers, friendships and tragedies is heartbreaking at times. Not everything was glitz and glamour after these men made it big and many relationships were tested and some lost. But ultimately the film conveys a message of hope and it really makes you want to get up out of your seat and cheer – not because someone rode a wave perfectly, but because the subjects of the film are able to focus on what really matters in life. I felt like I had been on a relatable and astonishing journey with these men, even though I know almost nothing about surfing. But who knows – maybe one day the waves will call my name and I’ll hop on a board and get to see the world through their eyes even a little bit better.