by GREG KING
“I’m pretty much the only touring surf movie festival that travels on an annual tour,” says Tim Bonython, the director of the Australian Surf Movie Festival, which is touring around Australia in April and May. Bonython takes a brief break from surfing at Avalon early on a Saturday morning to discuss the festival, which this year celebrates ten years. “I’ve made sure that this one is going to be pretty special. It’s one I’ve been working towards for years and years now, with a lot of very unique footage, and I’m pretty excited about how it’s going to end up.”
The two biggest inspirations behind Bonython’s choice of career were Bruce Brown’s 1966 surfing film The Endless Summer, and David Elfick’s classic 1975 film Crystal Voyager, with its combination of visuals and music from Pink Floyd. “I think it was the beginning of everything really,” he says. “It really inspired people to travel. People who surf really only used to surf in their own backyard. But Endless Summer really made people think that there’s a lot more out there than what you see in your back yard. So you can go to places like Hawaii, South Africa. They’re the two films that really stand out for me.”
Bonython has been travelling around shooting big waves ever since. Born in Tennyson in South Australia he grew up in a creative family. His father owned a couple of art galleries – one in Adelaide and one in Sydney. One of their clients was radio announcer John Laws, and Bonython was dating his daughter. He saw a movie camera on the floor, and asked to borrow it. Laws said: ‘If you can make good use of this camera then you can have it.’
Bonython took the camera to Bondi, started shooting, and that was pretty much it. “From the very first days of my life I was pretty much ocean bound,” he says. “I love the ocean. When I was living in Adelaide it was pretty much like no surf at all – there’s no surf in Adelaide unless you go down the coast. And so I discovered surfing, and I’ve used that movie camera to the best of my ability. Just to capture a great moment on film or tape and to show it to the world is a really satisfying experience.”
In 1991 he was commissioned to shoot the Rip Curl Pro event at Bell’s Beach. “That was the beginning of everything, because really that was the biggest surf ever,” he elaborates. “And I was just really lucky to be there. I documented that and took it back to Adelaide, showed it at the Victoria Hotel. We had a crowd of like hundreds turning up, lining up around the hotel, and way down the street. I was pretty much born into the business of showing surf movies on the big screen. I’ve had a full 35 years of shooting, and I had plenty of opportunities to make the most of my footage. And I just think that the way to go now is to show surf movies on the big screen.”
Bonython has also dabbled in music videos, having shot videos for The Screaming Jets and Midnight Oil. “I don’t know if you know much about my music career but I actually performed in a band,” he explains. “Then I got into booking venues in King’s Cross. I used to book the Manza Room, and the Picadilly Hotel. So I had a lot to do with the music industry. And because I was shooting surfing movies and heavily involved in surfing, my idea was to incorporate the whole vibe of the surfing thing had into music videos. I made a couple of full-on videos for The Screaming Jets, incorporating a bit of extreme sports including surfing, racing car driving, all sort of stuff like that. And that got me going on all their videos. I did about eight videos for The Screaming Jets.”
He also provided some footage for Midnight Oil’s Surf’s Up Tonight video, featuring skateboarder Tony Hawke, and some of the best athletes he could round up for the shoot in a Texas wave pool. “It was a great opportunity to incorporate one of the world’s great rock bands into some footage with surfing at night.”
But capturing big swells and champion surfers in action remains his passion. In 1998 he shot some incredible footage of the swells off Jaws Maui in Hawaii, and turned the footage into the documentary Biggest Wednesday, which went on to become one of the biggest selling surf videos of all time here in Australia. And that was the kernel that eventually grew into the Australian Surf Movie Festival. Bonython would travel around the country with a projector and a PA system in the back of his car, showing his footage at pubs and clubs. He would charge the proprietors $150. From those humble beginnings the Australian Surf Movie Festival has grown, and now screens as part of the Big Day Out, and regularly plays to sell out crowds.
Bonython has spent six years putting Immersion Tour together. The project had its genesis back in 1996 when he started recording interviews for what was going to be the definitive documentary 13-part series called What Is Surfing. For a 13-part documentary series he realised that he was going to need a lot of money, a lot of backing. But being the impetuous sort, he would run off and start shooting before he actually had the financial backing and ended up with lots of footage that he needed to show somewhere.
2012 is the tenth year of the Australian Surf Movie Festival, and Bonython aims to make it really special by showing some of the most incredible big wave footage he could lay his hands on. The 2012 Immersion Tour offers an unforgettable kaleidoscopic journey into how the ocean has become such an addictive part of our lives. The show consists of two 50-minute halves, with an intermission featuring live acoustic music from some young up-and-coming musicians and door prizes.
The first part features some incredible footage that immerses audiences in the whole surf experience, says Bonython. “I think immersion also represents a lot of different ways in which surfing can be seen. This film is not all about big crazy waves, it’s not about guys riding surfboards – it’s more about what surfing is, and that is really just riding a wave, and it doesn’t have to be on a surfboard. You can get the most incredible thrill just by body surfing. It doesn’t need to be on a surfboard. There are a lot of different ways in which people ride waves. They ride them on kneeboards, they ride them body surfing, they ride them on surf skis, they even do them in swimming pools. Some of the most spectacular surfing I’ve ever seen and documented has been on a body board. Body boarders get some of the most incredible barrels and do some of the most exciting manoeuvres on a wave. I aim to make a really good story and show off some of the most incredible big wave footage I can get my fingers on. There’s a five minute segment that I’ve put aside specifically for this film.”
The second half of the program looks at eleven times world champion Kelly Slater, who is a household name and also a good friend. “He’s phenomenal,” enthuses Bonython. “He’s not just an incredible surfer, he’s what they call the full package, he’s everything you could ever want an athlete to be and more. I mean, how many champions in any sport have eleven world titles under their belt? We thought when Mark Richards won four world titles that that was pretty amazing, and was never going to be done again. And not only that, he’s incredibly intelligent, he’s a good-looking bloke, and obviously the girls like that, and he’s a great ambassador for the sport. So in a film like Immersion you want to document the world’s greatest surfer, and I’ve been following him for the past 20 years of my career. Last year I had the privilege of documenting him down at Australia’s premier large slab wave in Tasmania, and when you get the opportunity of documenting Kelly it’s a treat. You know you’re going to get some great footage.
“It’s a full show,” he concludes. “I try to do it a little more personally and make a full night out of it. I try to make it special. We are trying to be unique, trying to do things differently. Pretty much what we’re doing now is what it was like back in the 70s.”
The Australian Surf Movie Festival is travelling all over Australia throughout April and May. It plays at clubs, pubs and cinemas, and kicks off at the Seymour Centre in Sydney on April 12. The Immersion Tour comes to Victoria in early May, where it will play at the Espy Hotel, ACMI and the Rosebud Cinema. For more information or ticketing details go to the website at www.ASMF.net.au.