"Keep Surfing" Makes Waves At Tribeca Film Festival

by BILLY GRAY · April 30, 2010

Hundreds of locals and tourists flock daily to Munich's Eisbach canal to gawk at the improbable landlocked capital of urban river surfing. Keep Surfing, the infectious documentary playing at Tribeca, should find a much larger, equally transfixed audience.-

If you're a klutz like me, the thrill of catching a wave might just be eternally elusive. Björn Richie Lob's engaging adrenaline rush of a movie, which was 10 years in the making, is a worthy substitute.

Keep Surfing never lets up as it mimics the anarchic energy of river surfing. It moves from Munich to Tahiti. From floodwaters on the Rhone--one surfer jumps off a bridge and into the dangerous currents as casually as most people take out the trash--to hardcore rapids surfing at Skookumchuck, Canada.

But like the many river surfing lifers it profiles, the movie shows discipline, skill and respect as it covers the sport's history and the immensely likable people behind it.

Walter Strasser is the elder statesman, a crusty veteran known within international surfing circles as "the grumpy old man." People started surfing the Eisbach's "standing wave" back in the '70s. But it occurred naturally--any mention of physics soars over my head, but just know that the phenomenon is very cool--and sporadically. Walter, also known as the "Janitor of the Eisbach," outfitted the site with a raft of sorts that made river surfing possible whenever it was put in place. (A standing wave never breaks so theoretically you can surf one forever, hence the tile.)

So he deserves to be a purist, and the scowls that accompany his frequent mentions of "posers" and tourists quickly grow on you. Walter would have only nice things to say about Dieter Deventer, an icon of the Eisbach’s first wave, if you will, and a man with a perma-smile that tells you all you need to know about the glories of the sport. And Quirin Rohleder, the man who introduced elite-level grace and acrobatics like a 360 to the scruffy sport. (His fancy footwork propelled him away from Munich and into the tropical big leagues of good ol' fashion ocean surfing.)

It’s easy to see why surfing movies might coast on the sport's beautiful visuals alone. Lob and director of photography Lars Liebold employ 16 and 35mm film for some arresting images. But Lob adds a layer of wistfulness to Keep Surfing that elevates it above a sports documentary and will resonate with just about everyone.

Walter scoffs at the idea that once you hit a certain age you have to stop having fun: "From twenty to forty some people refuse to let loose. Then they're forty and too old to do so." Dieter talks about balancing river surfing with the daily adult grind of paying the bills and feeding a family. Quirin misses Munich and his friends, saying, "I never laugh as hard as I laugh there." But he's grown up too and firmly states his Eisbach days are behind him.

Then there's Eli Mack, Keep Surfing's American representative. River surfing saved Eli from heading down a bad path in life and from the occasionally toxic atmosphere of the Southern California surf culture. His testaments to the sport's redemptive powers and the peerless camaraderie between its participants embody the buoyant vibe of the film.

Keep Surfing's bittersweet moments don't disrupt its cheerful, dynamic vibe. But they lend what could have been a niche documentary universal appeal. Space is limited along the Eisbach; localism can be forgiven. But I wouldn't be surprised if this movie leads to a spike in visitors.

Walter might shake his head at that notion, but deep down I bet he'd approve.

Keep Surfing plays today at 3:30 pm at Village East Cinemas and tomorrow at noon at Tribeca Cinemas. More info here.