Transformed by the sea

In Patagonia’s new film, the ocean is the star

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Production stills from Kimi Werner's scene in Fish People. A film by Keith Malloy made in 2016/17
Photo by Donnie Heden, courtesy of Coley Glasgow

Twelve minutes and thirty-eight seconds into Patagonia’s new film Fishpeople, you’re underwater in Tahiti, looking up at one of the world’s most powerful waves crashing upon you. Bubbles churn and sunlight is suddenly obscured as the water fractures all sense of place and time. Without pause, the wave rolls on, leaving us, the fish and ocean bric-a-brac to float about, disturbed, but at peace.

Behind the camera, Keith Malloy directs the shot. For him, a 42-year-old lifelong surfer, this scene encapsulates his sentiments about the ocean: powerful, transformative, disruptive, but ultimately positive.

“I couldn’t imagine a better way to clear my mind and hit the reset button,” Malloy says.

Over the course of the short documentary’s 48 minutes, six stories are told: six lives transformed by the ocean in six ways around the globe.

“I wanted to show how the ocean can be such a positive influence in life — how healthy it is to be in and be around it,” he says.

The ocean has been a pervasive source of positivity in Malloy’s life since he was born in Southern California. When he was 4, his father pushed him out on his first surfboard. The giddy weightlessness changed something in him, offset some inner balance that he hadn’t known to pay attention to. Until his late teenage years when he moved to Hawaii, Malloy lived and surfed primarily in California with his two brothers. The trio quickly became wave-riding forces renowned among the bare-chested surfers of Hawaii to the wetsuit-wearing surfers in Baja California.

Photo by Donnie Heden, courtesy of Coley Glasgow
Production stills from Eddie Donnellan’s scene in Fish People. A film by Keith Malloy made in 2016/17

At first, Malloy spent most of his surfing career in front of the camera. While traveling around the globe with the U.S. national surf team, photos of him eventually graced the cover of Surfer and Surfing magazines seven times. Malloy and his brothers grew famous for their quest to perfect “the lost art of being a waterman.” The low-key Californian boys could ride big waves, they could dive, paddleboard and body surf. They were inventing new gear and began making movies. They also happened to be known as some of the nicest humans around.

For Malloy, his pursuits were as much about riding waves as they were about connecting with the people he met on shore. He personally knows each person in the cast of Fishpeople or was introduced via a close friend. As he started reaching out, seeing if anyone was interested in taking part in the film, he noticed excitement bubble among them all. The ocean’s positive influence seemed to transcend place, age, rhyme or reason.

While Malloy was living in Oahu over a decade ago, he met Kimi Werner, a U.S. National Spearfishing Champion and devout marine conservationist. The movie opens with her story. We see her dive, mermaid-like, more than 70 feet in a single breath, navigating the cool blue water’s intricate coral reef maze. She hunts for tropical fish the size of her torso and returns with them back to the surface.

A theme of humility runs throughout the film. Six years ago, when Malloy was in Tahiti working on a bodysurfing movie, he met Matahi Drollet, then a pubescent boy who was on the cusp of becoming one of the world’s best big-wave riders. His story taps into a deep respect for the sea that he’s learned from his predecessors and family: “My grandfather and dad always told me to be humble in the water,” he says in the film. “First you have to show respect to nature and the ocean.”

Malloy didn’t actually know Lynne Cox, a long-distance open-water swimmer and author from California, until a friend brought her to his attention.

“I loved her story,” Malloy says. “She was inspiring and well-spoken, and I wanted to learn more about her.”

On camera, we see Cox swim across the Bering Strait and jump wetsuit-less into Antarctica’s churning sea — both of which were unprecedented feats that resulted in raising awareness about social and environmental issues. In questioning the impossible and pushing the limits of human endeavor, Cox’s main mission is to use her accomplishments to help connect communities and fortify humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

The same mission statement could be applied to the work of Eddie Donnellan, a long-time friend of Malloy and “super-nice human” who uses his surfing knowledge to offset the selfishness inherent to the one-person-to-one-board-to-one-wave sport. Donnellan’s life work is to share the sea’s therapeutic properties with at-risk youth across California’s Bay Area. We see his relationship with his mentee — Anthony, an 11-year-old inner city boy — grow while surfing.

Photo by Donnie Heden, courtesy of Coley Glasgow
Production stills from Eddie Donnellan’s scene in Fish People. A film by Keith Malloy made in 2016/17

“You know, I needed an escape as a kid,” Donnellan says in the film. “[Surfing] gave me this amazing place to experience life. I was raised by my mom and my mom always taught me to really, really share any joy that you have in life. … If I can do anything, one thing to help that family, that’s why I do what I do.”

Australian photographer Ray Collins also used the ocean as an escape. After suffering a workplace injury in the coalmines, he decided to pick up swimming for physical and mental rehab. The ocean de-stressed him. He took a camera out with him and started snapping photos of breaking waves. In the film you see him bobbing up and down, capturing water droplets colliding in the air, cerulean curls and white peaks mid-tango, preserving beauty through his lens.

“I loved the fact that he just shoots photos of the ocean,” Malloy says. “It’s usually all about surfing, but now it’s about capturing [the ocean’s magic.]”

Back in Malloy’s pro-surfing days, he met Dave Rastovich, a lanky, outspoken Aussie heralded as one of the “most gifted waveriders in the world.” Rastovich’s ability to tap into the ocean swell’s energy left a big impression on Malloy. Rastovich’s laid-back, albeit impassioned, commentary about translating surfing’s simplicity into the rest of life echoes Malloy’s conviction about the ocean’s transformative powers. As Rastovich rides, he is stoic, his body relaxed, almost as though he’s riding down an empty escalator, only a wave twice his height towers above him, threatening to crash.

In the film, Rastovich says, “[Surfing has] soothed pains that are really real. I remember when my dad died I just kept going back to the ocean and it made a huge difference.”

Photo by Donnie Heden, courtesy of Coley Glasgow
Dave Rastavich – Fish People Film 2016

Across the stories, the ocean’s beauty and power is undeniable. The film’s political ambitions are a bit more covert. Malloy doesn’t conjure any direct call for environmental conservation. Rather, he relies upon the ocean’s compelling, vivid beauty to make the case for itself. Between the awe-inspiring shots and first-person experiences, feeling inspired to protect the power and the beauty isn’t hard.

“The people may seem like the main characters,” Malloy says, “but the ocean is really the star. Everyone else is just the supporting cast.”

Malloy didn’t want the film to be a preachy political statement, although as a company Patagonia has taken firm stances on certain issues. Mostly, he wants viewers to enjoy the experience.

“I like the fact that we don’t have an overbearing environmental message, but hopefully that is the effect.”

Now, after more than two years of devoting himself to the film, spending time away from home, Malloy can finally fully soak in the fact that it’s done. His message can be shared.

Malloy and his wife Lauren have two daughters, aged 5 and 2. They have their own surfboards, and surf their own waves. Malloy hopes the ocean will help set them on their own path to peace and happiness.