In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive was established by Starfleet to prevent the infection of young cultures by the advanced ideas of the Federation — ideas and concepts that the younger civilizations may not be ready to handle. In the Original Series episode “A Piece of the Action” we see why: Some years before Kirk and party arrive, the early Federation ship Horizon has left behind the book Chicago Mobs of the Twenties on Iotia. The very impressionable inhabitants of Iotia have used the book to model their entire society, including mob bosses, Tommy guns, and gangster suits.
Twenty years ago in the small Papua New Guinea village of Vanimo, a “white man” left his surfboard behind. Like the Iotians in Star Trek, the inhabitants of Vanimo were never the same. For many of the villagers, surfing became not only a passion, but a way of life. Over the years, the sport has produced not one, but two different competing clubs, in a village of fewer than ten thousand people. However, a recreational sport like surfing can cause problems in a culture where leisure time is almost unknown.
The documentary Splinters tells the story of a high-stakes surfing competition in the village, with the two competing clubs locked in struggle. More than a story of a sporting competition, this is the story of the star competitors. Angelus, the son of the first native surfer in Vanimo, is the current “King” of Papua New Guinea (which they often simply refer to as PNG) surfing. Ezeakel is his protégé and — according to Angelus — will be the next king of PNG surfing. They are members of the Sunset Surf Club, a club that splintered off of the original Vanimo Surf Club.
Over the course of the documentary, the rivalry between the two clubs takes on Shakespearean proportions as they compete for three spots for a chance to compete in Australia. The rivalry boils over as Angelus’ ex-wife — who is also the sister of David, the leader of the Vanimo surf-club — uses back alimony payments to throw his game, which will eventually be his downfall.
Parallel to the story of Angelus and Ezeakel is the story of sisters Lesley and Susan, two of the few female surfers in the village. They struggle for a fair place on the team. The scarce surfboards go to the male team members, who are rarely willing to share. The sisters present a less idyllic side of the island culture, as we see that woman are literally the property of the men in their life. Although Susan has children by a man in the village, we find out that he has not paid her bride price, meaning that he is not legally entitled to beat her (even though he does anyway). But surfing provides her with an escape, a way to get out.
What makes the documentary strikingly effective is that the story is told by the subjects in their own words (with subtitles); no omniscient voice-over telling us what they are thinking or feeling. We have to see that in their faces, without interpretation. Obviously there is the filter of the filmmaker, but there is something compelling about the characters that is brought out by exceptional editing. Adding a narrative voice would have felt condescending and trite.
The story starts with a view of the village, showing the beautiful landscape and idyllic surfing conditions. To the credit of the film’s creator Adam Pesce (Director, Producer, Cinematographer, Editor), while he glorifies the sport of surfing with breathtaking imagery, he does not ignore the very real implications of injecting a leisure sport into a near-subsistence culture. This passion tears some of the surfers’ lives apart while fulfilling some others’ greatest dreams. Maybe the Prime Directive isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Want to see Splinters? Most of the showings have already passed, but if you are lucky enough to live in Florida or Pennsylvania, there are still some upcoming shows that you can make. The good news is that Splinter is available for purchase ($5.99) or rent ($2.99) on iTunes, where it is one of the top rentals.
Watch the preview: