'Surfwise:' Utopia by the Shore

From Doug Pray's <em>Surfwise</em>

Documentary filmmakers search long and hard for strong, compelling subjects. Doug Pray hit the motherlode with Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz and his family, the focus of his new film Surfwise, which opens May 9 through Magnolia Pictures. The tale of a strict, dynamic father and the life he imposed on his nine children, the film examines what happens when you grow up in a utopian, nomadic surfing cocoon and then are forced to deal with the real world.

Doc, a legendary surfer, was living an unfulfilled, romantically barren life as a doctor in Hawaii when he decided to drop his practice, move to Israel and live among the Bedouins. While there, he became a big shot in the nascent Tel Aviv beach scene and developed a lifelong obsession with a healthy diet. When he returned to the United States, he met his wife Juliette, with whom he would have nine children. They raised their eight sons and one daughter in a camper on the beach, and celebrated Shabbat every Friday night. The children were home-schooled, made to surf everyday and forced to follow a strict diet of raw, natural foods.

Pray focuses on Doc, his dream and the ways that living out that dream affected his offspring. All nine kids speak candidly about the love/hate relationship they have with their upbringing; many of them wish that they had been equipped with more tools to deal with the “regular” world, expressing anger and pain at the way they were raised.

Abraham, for example, wanted to pursue a medical career. Because of the unorthodox way he was brought up, however, he couldn’t get into medical school. He is brought to tears when he realizes how far behind he is, and how his upbringing has limited the choices for his future. 

In the same breath, the Paskowitz children defend their background to varying degrees. Says Pray, “They all know deep inside that they had the coolest childhood on the planet, that all of us who watch the movie are secretly jealous of it. You live with a tyrant, but the tyrant leads you down a really, really interesting road.”

Throughout the filmmaking process, Pray developed his own unique, difficult relationship with Doc, who never wanted the film to be made and will probably never see it; he had committed to participate at the request of Juliette. He was extremely difficult to interview because he knew what he wanted to say, and how and when he wanted to say it. “I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of interviews and I really pride myself on getting people to open up,” Pray says. “I sort of saw firsthand how controlling he can be…I feel like one of his sons now.”

Luckily, the children were more accessible. Pray describes them as the most entertaining, loving, interesting, amazing people he’s ever met. Several of them are involved in the film and music industries, including Joshua and Adam, who formed the band The Flys and toured as the opening act for the Rolling Stones.

“They don’t really have inhibitions because of the way they were brought up,” Pray notes. “There’s something just wonderful about people like that who don’t have all the societal expectations bringing them down all the time.”

The wealth of strong material was both a blessing and a curse for Pray. The film took a year for Pray and editor Lassë Jarvi to figure out the structure and fine-tune the story. It was a constant challenge to keep the film focused, as it could have easily gone in several different directions—Doc’s extreme health beliefs, or his reaction to the Holocaust as a Texas-born Jew and how that affected his beliefs, or an exploration of life “off the grid,” or the pros and cons of home schooling.

Ultimately, Pray found the story of the man, the dream and how that dream lived out in his family the most compelling tale to document. In part, this decision was sparked by David, the eldest son, who had been estranged for almost six years. In a pivotal scene, he plays an angry heavy metal song he’d written to his father.

“I love this story so much because life is always complicated,” Pray explains. “There’s no right answer. You can’t really say that Doc was a bad man because of what he did. Any time someone is a charismatic, inspirational leader—I don’t care who they are or what they are—there’s always going to be a side of them that is a little bit crazy or despotic. Doc is just a really determined father who literally pursued his dreams to the end of the earth, and that’s very rare.”

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