‘He’s maybe got a few screws loose’: the slab surfer taking extreme sport to a whole new level | Kieran Pender

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The Guardian

Before his fatal attempt to summit Mount Everest almost a century ago, British mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb the world’s tallest peak. “Because it’s there,” he famously replied.

Watching Facing Monsters, a recently released feature-length surf film, the same question comes to mind. What would prompt someone to charge some of the world’s heaviest waves?

Indeed, it’s more than that. The film about West Australian surfer Kerby Brown, is not so much about big wave surfing, as dangerous wave surfing. This is extreme sport taken to a whole new level.

There are plenty of large waves in the world, including many along Australia’s vast shores. Attempting to ride any wall of water more than a few metres high is attended by risk, but Brown takes death-defying surfing to a new level. Riding monstrous slabs as they erupt upon the coast – deep water swell violently colliding with shallow reef – is the protagonist’s specialty. Why do it?

Kerby Brown tackles a monster wave. Photograph: Andrew Semark

“A lot of big wave guys chase the same waves, the same swells,” Brown says, speaking by phone from his home in far-south Western Australia, close to the monster waves he likes to surf. “I don’t like that scene. For me it’s about removing yourself from everything. A lot of the waves I’m looking at are really remote, untouched areas. That’s a huge appeal for me, to get away from your normal day to day, completely switching off, getting amongst some of the most raw, powerful, natural elements – the ocean.

“Particularly these really heavy, challenging, unpredictable waves, there’s just so much that goes into it, there’s so many unknowns,” he adds. “It’s such a special feeling, it makes me feel alive. That’s where I feel most comfortable – out in the ocean, away from the everyday hustle of society.”

If it is a hallmark of a good film to stay with the viewer, I have remained transfixed ever since watching the opening sequence (even now, several weeks later, the scene occasionally pops into my head at random). There’s Brown floating in the water; then Brown lying prone, bloodied and bruised; and then, in one of the most visually-arresting surf scenes I have ever seen on screen, Brown surfing a gnarly slab straight towards dry rock. It is like watching a car crash in slow motion; as Brown navigates the wave’s barrel, it explodes around him and pummels the surfer in to the reef. It is an unbelievable scene – except it’s right there, caught on tape.

Photograph: Andrew Semark
Shot from Facing Monsters, a documentary about Kerby Brown’s life. Photograph: Andrew Semark

Facing Monsters is not for the faint-hearted. The film is 100 minutes of these death-defying waves, in beautiful high definition. The ocean cinematography, by Rick Rifici, is breathtaking – Western Australia could not ask for a better long-form tourism advert. Between scenic ocean vistas, Brown dances through 10-metre waves like a ballerina. Yet a sense of foreboding looms large. “It’s like getting me to come to their funeral,” admits Brown’s dad, Glenn, as he watches on from a boat as his sons – Kerby and brother Cortney – narrowly defy catastrophic injury.

After the harrowing opening sequence, it does not take long for the risks of big wave surfing to reappear. The brothers eye off a wave on the mid-west coast that breaks right in front of a rocky shelf. “You look at it and think – how do you even surf that?” asks Cortney, a fellow surfer and Brown’s preferred jet-ski partner (big wave surfers are typically pulled into the wave by a ski). For ordinary humans, that would be the end of the inquiry – you don’t. The wave breaks straight on to the ledge; it should be impossible to surf. Not for the Brown brothers.

“That place was a real starting point for me,” Brown says. “It was a wave that wasn’t considered rideable – people didn’t think it was an actual wave. It’s where I kind of first opened up my mind to different possibilities. It literally comes out of the deep water and breaks on to that shallow, dry ledge.”

Kerby and his brother Cortney Brown. Photograph: Andrew Semark

Early in the film Brown rides it with aplomb, tucking into the barrel and exploding out of it, with the ledge just metres away. But a few waves later Brown’s fortune turns. He skims down the face and pulls in to the wave, only to come tumbling down and heading straight for the rock.

“I got so lucky,” he says. “I did get thrown and I did basically go straight on to the reef. I was just pinballed. I got heaps of cuts and bruises and stuff, but I guess I fell on the right angle, so I didn’t do any serious damage. You’re obviously at the mercy of the ocean.

“There are some waves where you don’t know if you’re going to come away OK, because you’re getting thrown on to the rocks,” he adds. “That’s the most dangerous part about riding these waves – there’s literally no water underneath.”

On that particular wave, Brown eventually came up gasping for air – his brother swooping to the rescue on the jet ski, powering through the foam. “I hit my head on the reef on that one,” he says in the film while clambering on to the ski, in what is a laughably understated comment from someone who could have just died.

But this is not the last of Brown’s encounters with near-death. I’m trying to avoid spoiling the film, but I’ll just quote Brown. “Sometimes you get really lucky and you don’t get too injured,” he says. “But obviously – you saw in the film – that’s not always the case.”

Beyond the compelling footage of the Brown brothers chasing these surreal waves, Facing Monsters is primarily a meditation on what motivates them to do it. “It’s an addiction, really, surfing those waves,” offers one observer. Another is more direct: “He’s maybe got a few screws loose.”

‘I’ve always had my own personal demons that I’ve battled with,’ says Brown. Photograph: Rick Rifici

The film is also a powerful biopic of Kerby Brown. It tells the story of a talented young surfer, who briefly tried the competitive circuit only to get bored of the grind (he is not the only one – even Australian world No 2 Jack Robinson has complained about the struggles he faced while attempting to qualify for the World Surf League).

Instead, Brown travelled and chased big waves. It helped him with his demons – the monsters in the film’s title are seemingly a dual reference, to the monstrous waves Brown rides without fear, and his own inner turmoil.

“I’ve always had my own personal demons that I’ve battled with,” he says during one scene. “I’ve used the ocean to help me through those times. When I don’t have the ocean, and when I’m not surfing, I tend to turn to alcohol and drugs to get me through it.”

Facing Monsters tells a moving human tale, of grappling with these challenges and rapidly growing up after becoming a father. Fatherhood is an important theme and a major tension in the film; Brown comes to understand that chasing dangerous waves is at odds with his parental responsibilities. “It’s not just me – that’s a huge factor,” he says at one point. “Before they came along it wouldn’t even be a question – I’d just be back out there, as soon as I was able.”

‘I mean it’s pretty raw,’ says Brown of the documentary Facing Monsters. Photograph: Andrew Semark

Big wave surfing is not a new genre for the sport – surf magazines have been covering these surfers for decades now. 100 Foot Wave, a six-part series released last year (available on Binge), recalls the discovery of Nazaré, the biggest wave in the world, in Portugal a decade ago. But what makes Facing Monsters unique is its unfiltered access to these surfers as they chase such incredible, demanding and dangerous waves.

In one scene, later in the film, the viewer is ringside as Brown endures a heavy wipe-out. It is hard to watch, but it is also incredibly captivating, because it’s so real. The rush, the fear, the hurt – Facing Monsters is an unvarnished look at the highs and lows of chasing the thrill that comes with riding such monsters.

“I mean it’s pretty raw,” says Brown. “I guess that’s really what I wanted out of this doco – to be as real and raw and honest as it could be. I just wanted to be a true representation of the characters, a snippet, a window into my life.”

Brown says that the production team had wondered how the film might end – it was in development for five years, under the watchful eye of director Bentley Dean. “I was always like: ‘If you follow me around for a while, stuff is gonna happen naturally – drama unfolds. There’s always highs and there’s always lows.

“It’s the nature of what we do,” he adds. “The risks are there.”

July 15, 2022 at 12:39PM Kieran Pender

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