Pierce Kavanagh is bringing surf film festival to San Diego this May. Photo by Jared Whitlock
Arts Featured Rancho Santa Fe

Filmmaker brings it home with surf film festival

CARMEL VALLEY — Last fall, Pierce Kavanagh was at the New York Surf Film Festival promoting his documentary “Manufacturing Stoke.” Known for skyscrapers and less-than-consistent waves, New York City has a surf film festival. Kavanagh couldn’t help but wonder: what about San Diego?

“I realized that my hometown — famous for giving so much to surf culture — doesn’t have anything like this,” Kavanagh said. “We saw the good, bad and the ugly showing our film at festivals. We want to recreate the best of it in San Diego.”

Pierce Kavanagh is bringing surf film festival to San Diego this May. Photo by Jared Whitlock

On May 11 to May 13, the inaugural San Diego Surf Film Festival will screen 15 feature-length films and 30 short films at Bird’s Surf Shed, 1091 West Morena Blvd., San Diego.

“It will showcase local and international filmmakers with their finger on the pulse of surfing,” Kavanagh said. “I think films will show a lot of unique voices participating in the sport that aren’t necessarily being heard.”

Kavanagh, 43, was once one of those voices.

Kavanagh grew up surfing in La Jolla. A strong undercurrent of territorialism ran through the surf breaks, especially at spots like Windansea Beach.

“When I was little they used to kick out windshields, take your emergency break off and roll your car down to the beach if they didn’t like you,” he said. “It was heavy. But now it’s more of a family affair.”

Surfers at Windansea Beach became more concerned about promoting philanthropy and a sense of community over the years. Once apathetic to issues facing the world, a sea change took place in Kavanagh too.

Drifting in and out of community college for more than 15 years, Kavanagh worked as a bartender to fund snowboard trips and globetrotting travels. But he knew he didn’t want to make cocktails for the rest of his life, so he dove into film school. He also met his wife of three years. They currently reside in Carmel Valley.

“She’s really conscious of environmental issues and everything happening,” Kavanagh said. “Everything started changing when I met her. She opens my eyes in a really beautiful way.”

A new interest in sustainability transformed into full-blown passion when he went to the Cardiff Surf Classic, an annual environmental fair and surf contest, several years ago.

“The energy of everyone there was infectious,” Kavanagh said. “I saw the creative ways the little guys are taking environmental issues into their own hands.”

“Manufacturing Stoke” was born.

Introspective and soulful, “Manufacturing Stoke” sheds light on how major surf companies are pushing environmentally toxic products — a strategy at odds with a sport that’s so closely linked with nature. Far from a finger-pointing indictment of the industry, the documentary also follows a group of inspiring surfers who are reinventing the sport with sustainability in mind.

“Manufacturing Stoke” was independently financed and didn’t have a marketing budget. Yet it was screened at several international film festivals and racked up praise, including a nomination for “surf film of the year” at the Byron Bay Film Festival in Australia. Now Kavanagh hopes the San Diego Surf Festival will help other independent filmmakers connect with an audience.

“Many filmmakers don’t have their film in every surf shop,” Kavanagh said. “I know how that goes. We’re trying to get their films out there and maybe eventually set them up with an online distribution deal.”

According to Barry Haun, the curator and director of the Surfing Heritage Foundation, the festival is tapping into a growing trend of independent surf films.

“I think that more people are looking for a bit more substance or narrative with surf films,” said Haun, who is also on the festival’s screening panel. “Not just shot after shot of pros surfing.”

Kavanagh will soon go on the road again to promote his documentary. Although he’s excited, he couldn’t seem more stoked for what awaits when he returns home.

“Great things are happening in San Diego right now,” Kavanagh said. “This has been the best year of my life and I can only see it getting better.”

The San Diego Surf Festival is taking submissions from independent filmmakers until March 31. For more details, go to sandiegosurffilmfestival.com.