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FRONTLINE/World Rough Cut

Rough Cut: Puerto Rico: Samurai Surfers
Behind the Lens: Interview With Sachi Cunningham

The filmmaker talks about her own love affair with surfing and how she infiltrated the salty "locals only, no gringos" surfer community in Puerto Rico.

How did you come to fall in love with surfing?
My parents laugh about me always asking for a beach in my backyard for Christmas when I was too young to know better. I was a competitive swimmer as a child, but I always wanted to surf. Everyone in my family was a bodysurfer, so I just went in that direction until I lived in Japan after graduating from college. I taught English in Kyushyu, the southernmost island. There was an amazing surf island named Tanegashima with a really great surf community just a short boat ride away. Japan was the first place I tried to get on a surfboard, but mostly I was learning new skills as a bodysurfer and water photographer. Observation is a good way to learn, and learning the timing and where to position yourself for a good shot gave me good wave knowledge.

Then how did you make the leap to making an environmental documentary about surfers?
Nothing makes me happier than photographing or swimming in a big, beautiful wave. I've always been aware that the beauty of these waves should not be taken for granted and that we need to pay attention to how we impact our ocean environment. I came to graduate school in journalism with the intention of finding an environmental story about the ocean that would also give me a chance to shoot video in the water.

When did you first go to Puerto Rico to surf, and how did you come across the story of the Samurai Surfers?
Two of my college friends from the Surfrider Foundation tipped me off to the story of El Doctor [Angel Rodriguez]. My first trip to Puerto Rico was in October of 2004 to meet El Doctor, and I went back in January 2005 to film the documentary. Unfortunately, the surf wasn't good for either of the trips, so that ride in the film is one of my only rides, but I'm hoping to return.

Do you think surfers are particularly successful as environmental activists?
They have the potential to be the most successful activists because of their passion for the ocean and their need to keep it healthy to enjoy their sport. But part of my motivation in making this film was to challenge the apathy that also exists in the surf community. Surfers can be pretty selfish; their main goal is to ride a wave -- alone. The sacrifices that you need to make to catch that perfect wave when the tide and swell and weather are all aligned -- all acts of nature entirely out of our control -- mean that most surfers are often focused on checking the weather charts, driving down to the water to check the waves, all of which consumes their free time. After hunting down a wave and riding it, there's not much time and energy left to devote to environmental activism. But sometimes, as in this case in Puerto Rico, surfers really respond to threats to their environment. As Miguel Sarriera, the environmental lawyer, says in the film, "If the surfers were not there, nothing would have happened." If every surfer made environmental activism cool, I think it would catch on with the general population.

Was your conversation with the representative from the Army Corps of Engineers enlightening? Do you think they learned any lessons from this battle in Puerto Rico?
The Corps had permits to dump the harbor dredge offshore, not onshore. When I asked the Corps why they did not get new permits when they decided to dump onshore, they simply replied, "I don't know." I think most of the legal case went down like this, with a lot of shrugging of the shoulders and looking the other way. But after meeting with the Corps, I found it hard to paint them as terrible people. I think they want to serve our country and do a good job on the whole. But this court decision plainly says that mistakes were made. So they've learned that their work will not go unchecked. The cost of the case alone will probably deter something like this from happening again.

Were there any particular tricks to reporting on the surfing community or ways in which you had to prove yourself to get access to their story?
Arecibo -- the place where I shot the film -- is known as a "locals only, no gringos" spot. I think it would have been very difficult for me to meet El Doctor without having my friends at Surfrider introduce me to him. The footage you see at the start of the story, where El Doctor and I surf, was the very first day that I arrived in Puerto Rico. El Doctor's whole crew was there to meet me and my video crew, and I definitely earned some street cred by jumping off that cliff into fairly turbulent surf and catching waves with them. I don't think my crew was particularly psyched to be sitting in the hot sun watching me play in the water, though!

Is the surf community in Puerto Rico different in any particular way from those elsewhere?
You know, I've surfed on both coasts of the U.S. and in Hawaii, Mexico, Indonesia, New Zealand, Japan and Fiji, and surfers are pretty much the same around the world. That's part of what I love about the sport. We all share a love for the water and the feeling of riding a wave. We all know what it feels like to be humbled by the power of the ocean. It sounds corny, but there really is a universal language of sorts that is shared by all surfers.

That said, surf travel makes for great education in cultural differences and nationalities. You learn something about human behavior when you're out there riding waves with new people -- sharing them or not. There are a lot of boogie boarders in Puerto Rico, actually, so surfers seemed to be a relatively rare and elite breed. From the few that I met, I would say they are friendly island people with a lot of pride, like to listen to
Reggaeton [a Spanish version of hip-hop] and have fun. They surf with fire and attitude ... which may be why they made such passionate activists.

What's been your path to filmmaking?
I used to work in commercial and feature film production and development in Hollywood before deciding to go to graduate school. The film that inspired me to get in the business was Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. I still want to make films that impact people's thoughts and emotions the way Lee's films do for me. But I started to realize that finding real-life stories using the documentary form was the most satisfying way for me to capture the spirit and issues that I admire in a gripping feature film. I made my first documentary, about mixed-race women like myself, while I was a senior in college at Brown, and nearly a decade later, I started making a documentary about a dancer with a hip disability who uses crutches. It didn't take too long for me to realize I had no idea what I was doing as a filmmaker, so I applied to Berkeley in order to study under veteran documentary filmmaker Jon Else (Cadillac Desert, The Day After Trinity). When I learned of El Doctor's story, it seemed like a perfect match for my interest in international reporting and my desire to do an environmental story.

What other films have you worked on or are in the works?
I just got back from shooting a FRONTLINE/World Fellows piece in Japan about the upsurge in nationalism and the rising tensions between Japan and China. I'm also wrapping up that hour-long film that I've been working on for the last four years about Bill Shannon, the dancer with the hip disability. His dance references hip-hop and skateboarding, so my years of watching surf have come in handy when shooting the film.