Challenging surf culture

2008-02-01 00:00

Tanlines tells the story of Midget Hollow, a young surfer who, if local legend is to believed, was pulled from the ocean itself. Midget and his friends live the quintessential surf grommet existence in a small Australian town where conservatism rules despite the existence of a bunch of characters that would not be out of place in a John Waters movie.

With the arrival of the holidays, there's not a whole lot to do, except surfing, harassing the somewhat perverse townsfolk and consuming as much intoxicants as they can get their hands on. But when Cass, the brother of one of Midget's friends, arrives in town, Midget is instantly attracted to his confidence and his openness about his homosexuality. The two embark on a passionate affair, but the relationship soon begins to feel the strain of secrecy in a small town.

Both a gay surf movie and a tender, punk-infused coming-of-age story, TanLines, eschews the obvious for a more oblique and, in many ways, more realistic account of growing up in a claustrophobically small town.

I spoke to director Ed Aldridge about the making of the film and about being a gay surfer, or perhaps more accurately, a surfer who happens to be gay.

Peter Machen: Tanlines is billed as a gay surf movie. I know you've said that in the end that might not actually be a very accurate description of the film, but did you set out to make a “gay surf movie”?

Ed Alridge: My intention was to write about teenage sexuality, and the surfing backdrop felt natural because I'm a surfer and I was living in Australia where surfing is a lot more mainstream than in the UK (where I'm from). I certainly never intended to write a film about how difficult it is to be gay in surf culture, but the inherent hetero nature of the culture does present its own dramas.

PM: Like many subcultures, surf culture is imbued with a certain kind of freedom, but is at the same time in many ways fundamentally conservative. Have you yourself experienced much homophobia in the waves?

EA: No one's ever called me “faggot” while I'm paddling for a wave and since I stopped wearing my rainbow flag wetsuit there's nothing to distinguish me as gay. I don't like chatting in the water, so unless you know me, there's not much reason for thinking I'm gay. I prefer chatting on land and riding waves in the water. Surf culture (and its inherent homophobia) kicks in on the land, but this usually takes the form of a general atmosphere of machismo rather than overt attacks.

PM: Midget never comes out in the film, (although no doubt the truth will leak out in the small town where he lives), which I thought was quite a good move (too often, gay-themed films dwell on the coming-out process as if it were an act of religious redemption). But does that mean that there is no place for (overt) homosexuality in surf culture? Or in small-town Australia?

EA: Well, the important thing, and the thing that for me makes it a happy ending, is that Midget comes out to himself, which is in many ways the hardest part. Practically speaking, it is hard to be out in small towns anywhere, and surf culture only exacerbates this because it's an even more closed off culture where difference is hard to accept.

In Australia, I met many people who grew up surfing and stopped when they came out. I think that's very sad, and is all to do with the culture and not the physical activity of riding waves.

PM: At the same time, as with many male-dominated sports, there is something inherently homosexual about surf culture, which doesn't by any means imply that surfers are gay, but which does make the acceptance of gay surfers a slightly more complex affair. Comments?

EA: I think it's too obvious to call a culture that inhabits so much male bravado “homosexual”. There are certainly homoerotic elements to the activity, but that comes when looking from the outside. Who you f**k and what waves you ride have very little to do with one another.

The surf culture doesn't only need to open up to the idea of homosexuality, but to age and gender as well. For too long surf culture has been dominated by young straight white men and this leaves it rather limited.

PM: When watching Tanlines, I couldn't help but be reminded of Larry Clark. Is he a direct influence, or is it just that you are both involved in a certain kind of film-making?

EA: There are obvious parallels to Larry Clark, and I think Kids was a groundbreaking film. Where we differ fundamentally is that Larry Clark doesn't have much of a sense of humour.

PM: You are far less salacious than Clark (and I don't use the word with negative connotations). There is far less lingering of the camera on young bodies and the sex is less confrontational. Was this deliberate? At the same time, many people, while accepting gay people, aren't that comfortable with gay sex. Did you feel at all restrained about what you could and couldn't put into the film? And how have straight audiences responded to the film?

EA: I would certainly never tone something down for fear of making the audience uncomfortable, and I love confrontational sex! But I also didn't feel the need to shock the audience, and the way we dealt with the sex feels quite natural to me. Straight audiences often like the film more than gay audiences because they aren't necessarily hoping to see representation of themselves on screen.

PM: Did you experience any negativity from the surfer community during the film's production?

EA: Yeah. We had some guys shouting abuse at us at the beach during shooting, and the online community was quite open with their disdain for the idea that there could be gay surfers. Nothing too surprising there.

The neo-Nazis were also quite vocal in their hatred of the idea. None of this surprises me, but I have seen comments by gay surfers who don't think it represents their lives (which, of course, it was never meant to).

PM: You used non-gay non-actors in the film's main roles. Can you tell me a little about the casting process? And was it difficult for the two leads to film the scenes in which they are intimate with each other?

EA: We cast for almost a year in the usual way (holding open auditions, going to drama schools, using casting agents) but we didn't find anyone suitable. So we took to the streets and approached any group of teenagers who had the surfer/skater look. We met Jack (who plays Midget) and his friends and ended up casting them all. The fact that Jack and Daniel are friends helped in the sex scenes and both are pretty exhibitionist by nature anyway. They only had one rule - that the cock of one wouldn't touch the skin of the other (so they fashioned some protection for that region).

PM: There's not that much surfing in the film. I know that the protagonists are very busy doing other things, but I wondered why you didn't have more wave shots, thus making the film more attractive to surf audiences? (I would have loved the film to have shown at the Wavescape Festival that takes place on the beachfront during the Durban International Film Festival. And, as far I know that was the intention. But the shortage of waves prevented the organisers from doing so.)

EA: That is my biggest regret. I ended up cutting a lot of the surfing action out, as it seemed strangely out of place. For that reason, I don't think the film is as interesting to a surf audience as I had hoped. I am planning to redress this with a future surf-related film.

PM: I know it's impolite to talk about money, but how much did Tanlines cost to make?

EA: We had $2 and a role of sticky tape.

PM: Cheers Ed. See you at the Festival.

•Tanlines screens at the Durban International Film Festival on 26 & 29 June at Musgrave Centre.

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