Surfwise is only a surfing film in the same way that its central character Dorian (Doc) Paskowitz is, as he puts it, a “Jewish surfer.”
In fact Mr. Paskowitz is a Stanford-educated doctor who refused to send any of his nine children to school; an individualist who led his children each morning in a rendition of Chairman Mao’s March of the Volunteers; and a professed good husband and good father, who pursued his own dream with his family in tow. He also happens to surf.
And though Doug Pray’s documentary includes surfing footage, mainly shot on 8mm camera by the Paskowitz family, the sport plays sideline to the film’s main themes. Part-homage and part-cautionary tale, Surfwise recounts Mr. Paskowitz’s half-century Odyssey of self-fulfillment and poses the question of how much parents should impose their own ideals on their children.
In the mid-1950s Mr. Paskowitz had a successful medical practice, was a competitive surfer and had even made an initial foray into politics. By many modern conventional measures he was successful, but he was not happy. In 1956, he traded it all in for a new life.
“I let my cleaner go, I let my apartment go, I let the guy who cleans my car go,” says Mr. Paskowitz. Then he embarked on a year-long trip to Israel. Surfing the beaches of Tel Aviv, he also dated a variety of women and formed his ideas about a healthy diet while living in the desert with the Bedouin.
Returning to the States he met his third wife, Juliette, and soon they embarked on an endless road trip, raising nine children out of a small camper van on the beaches of America.
The children were home-schooled, fed a staple diet of multi-grain oatmeal and without fail, surfed daily.
“Other parents said go to school, don’t go swimming with sharks, that’s dangerous,” says seventh son, Salvador. “Our parents said, go swimming with sharks, but you’re not [expletive deleted] going to school—that [expletive deleted] is dangerous!”
A no sugar, mostly raw and all organic diet was strictly enforced at all times. And the portions were small; Mr. Paskowitz’s belief in a lean diet conveniently coincided with a shortage of funds. They made small amounts of money with a surfing school — producer Tommy Means came up with the idea of the documentary after spending a week at the Paskowitz surfing camp. Mr. Paskowitz would do low-level medical work in particularly difficult times. More often though he would ply his medical trade free-of-charge, setting up impromptu medical clinics on whatever beach the family was currently settled on. One son remembers his father proudly presenting a coin and announcing “that’s it, we’re down to our last dime.”
The result of this upbringing is a fantastic shambles, and Mr. Pray pre-sents complex family dynamics with a deft touch. Most of the siblings became champion surfers, several now have successful careers, and all are still dealing with the fallout of their unique childhood.
As the eldest son, musician Daniel was given the role of enforcer for his father’s regime, which meant he was heavily resented by his siblings — a resentment he now harbors as an adult against his father. In a disturbing scene captured during the first day of filming, Daniel sings an angst-ridden metal song which appears to be calling for his father’s death.
Yet at one time or another in the film all the siblings talk of their cherished childhood memories. Their often sardonic narration is redeeming too — their parents may not have let them near a school but they didn’t raise dummies.
Similarly while he faithfully presents Mr. Paskowitz’s good intentions and undeniable achievements, the director doesn’t flinch from examining his questionable parenting techniques and the more out-there aspects of his character. Now 85 years old, Mr. Paskowitz still surfs every day, does hours of calisthenics — naked — and is generally in great health. This, according to him, is because he is not fat.
“Fat people are not as attractive, nor as rich, nor as creative, nor as youthful as they would be if they were slim and trim,” says Mr. Paskowitz, for whom the root of society’s ills is poor diet.
Mr. Pray’s background in music videos and graffiti and hip-hop documentaries shows; with its graphic illustrations and choppy editing, Surfwise at times looks like an MTV production. The pay-off for this over-production is that the film never slacks.
The film’s ending argues for a neat sense of resolution that might not really be there. Otherwise Surfwise is a sensitive portrait of a family who steered clear of jobs, taxes, neighborhoods and the other trappings of modern life we think essential and survived — mostly — intact.
Surfwise screens on Friday, June 20, for one night only at the Capawock theatre on Main street in Vineyard Haven; there are two show times, 7 and 9:15 p.m. It is presented by the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival to kick off its fifth annual summer film series beginning Wednesday, July 2, in Chilmark. Tickets are $10, or $5 for festival members.