Reviewed by: Emma Slawinski

Is there any invention in the world the Irish didn’t have a hand in? The latest phenomenon they’d like to claim is modern surfing, and they pull it off in original and captivating style. Waveriders is shot through with the action and adrenalin you’d expect from a surf movie, but its contemplative indie styling – not to mention the bewitchingly soft Irish accent of the narrator (Cillian Murphy) - sets it apart from glossier American stablemates like Riding Giants and Step Into Liquid.

Waveriders starts by asserting surfing's Irish roots, introducing George Freeth, the Hawaii-born son of an Irish émigré alive at the turn of the last century. He helped re-popularise the sport once banned by Christian missionaries because it “appeared to be a person making love to a piece of wood,” took it to California, and with the help of Jack London, who waxed lyrical about it in his travel writing, triggered the rebirth that would become a craze in the Fifties and Sixties.

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The first half of the film, which deals with surfing history and Freeth’s story, offers a hook into the sport for non-surfers – it’s an engaging narrative emboldened by an original mash-up of interview footage with text and illustration, and surprisingly touching. In his short lifetime Freeth not only brought the sport to the masses, but also founded modern lifeguarding and notched up some astonishing solo sea-rescues. He died, aged just 35, during an influenza epidemic that swept the US.

Following Freeth’s influence, surfing continued to grow, and with it the crowds on the Californian and Hawaiian beaches, so that by the Fifties some of the more adventurous surfers – laidback drifters of the beat generation – set out to find more remote, untried waves. They first took to South America, and eventually made their way to Europe and the Emerald Isle.

The historical detail is neatly interwoven with testimony from today’s big names in surfing, who explain what’s drawn them back to the ‘motherland’. Competition circuit legend Kelly Slater, who seems more of a tropical fish himself, wryly concedes that it’s “a cold paradise”, and the Malloy family (four Irish-American brothers who have turned their itinerant surfer-muso-journo lifestyle into a lucrative brand) wax lyrical about the windswept charms of the island and its uncrowded breaks.

Eventually, Waveriders has to return to that holy grail of surfers and surf films alike – the massive, towering wave in an unreachable spot. Luckily, Ireland has some of these, too, and they make for impressive viewing. The action scenes right through the film – but particularly here – are visceral and heart-thumping; you can’t help but be awestruck at the audaciousness and confidence of the surfers. The cinematography achieves some incredible feats, showing us the inside of monstrous barrel waves and a breathtaking survey of Irish land- and seascapes.

It’s the closest you’ll get to experiencing the terrifying power of the ‘big ones’ short of diving in yourself, though if anything could tempt you to a life immersed in saltwater, it’s this film. Waveriders is most definitely not just for surfers; it will appeal to anyone who loves the outdoors, the sea, or just the Irish – and who doesn’t love the Irish?

Reviewed on: 23 Mar 2009
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Exhilerating documentary proves surfing has Irish roots.
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Director: Joel Conroy

Writer: Joel Conroy, Lauren Davies

Starring: Narrated by Cillian Murphy, with Richard Fitzgerald, Gabe Davies, Kelly Slater, Kevin Naughton, Craig Peterson

Year: 2008

Runtime: 80 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK, Ireland


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