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Five of the nine Paskowitz children look for waves, even in the Midwest, circa 1974.
Family’s surf lifestyle fell far short of idyllic
"Surfwise" captures the Paskowitz family's decades of itinerant life
Hawaii residents will detect plenty of familiar locations and the aloha spirit in its purest form in the new movie "Surfwise." But don't mistake this documentary for a typical film about riding waves. Instead, it is a fascinating exploration into the 11-member Paskowitz family's idyllic -- or perhaps dysfunctional -- quest for a bucolic life in the '60s and '70s, far from school, money and society.
The idea of a crazy hippie? Not really, as patriarch Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz was a Stanford-educated physician who abandoned his practice -- and everything material -- to live for more than two decades in a 24-foot camper through California, Mexico, Hawaii and other parts of the United States with his nine children. (In the movie, wife Juliette Paskowitz recalls residing in the camper without one day off from pregnancy or breast -feeding for more than 10 years).
After making its way through several film festivals and 30 or 40 cities across the country, "Surfwise" is coming to Hawaii. It will screen at the Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, beginning this week. (See a review of "Surfwise" on Page 21.)
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An 8-year-old Adam Paskowitz rides the surf.
When director Doug Pray first met the family, it was the surfing theme that commanded his attention. But as he began hearing their stories, "I started realizing that this was not a surf movie at all," he said from his home in Los Angeles. "This was an amazing opportunity to tell the story of a family who dared to live differently. A lot of Americans fantasize about doing this, and Doc did it for decades. The title does make you think about surfing, but it's metaphorical. There are times I wish the word 'surf' wasn't in the title."
Even so, surfing as a philosophy and lifestyle anchors the film. Doc encouraged healthy living and eating, and swimming in the presence of sharks was deemed far safer than attending school (Doc and Juliette home-schooled their children).
"It sounds good to say we were one step ahead of the truant officer," Juliette says in the film. "But that didn't really happen. Because if you don't go into the system, they don't even know you exist."
While the children express a sense of awe at how they lived on granola with baths in the ocean, there is no shortage of hostility and resentment that their intelligent, educated father sent them into the world with few tools to survive beyond the books they read on the beach and a huge dose of flexibility.
Doc said he just wanted his kids around him and "education be damned." But the lone daughter, Navah, says in the movie, "You can't keep us uneducated and not expect there to be some serious consequences."
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"Doc" Paskowitz, a Harvard-educated physician, rejected his mainstream existence to pursue a life of surfing, with his wife and nine children in tow.
Onlookers yearned to tap into their pure, "off the grid" existence sustained by family unity. "Everyone's trying to get that spiritual moment of perfection," one adult child says in the film. "We had it. We lived it." But, he later explains, "There's no halfway."
Though some of the film was shot by Hawaii resident Dave Homcy in Waikiki, where Doc and Juliette settled for a while after the children fled the family camper against their father's wishes, the couple has since moved back to Orange County to be closer to their children and grandchildren. This was a long time coming, however.
Internal conflicts and years of estrangement followed their departure from the itinerant life. Several family members had not spoken before a reunion at Campbell Estate in West Oahu encouraged them to put aside their differences. Though it was not staged for the film, when Pray heard the gathering might happen, he "was all over it," he said.
"I'm really grateful for how honest they were," said Pray, who has made five documentaries about different subcultures since 1996. "We wouldn't have half the story if the family had been guarded. And this is a tribute to how they were raised. They're not facetious on any level. They are 100 percent what they are."
"He's a very extreme personality, a complex, fascinating, driven individual. He was for sure the hardest character to nail down."
Doug Pray / "Surfwise" director, speaking about patriarch Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz
When asked how Doc's children reacted to the final product, Pray said: "The first time they saw it, it was extremely emotional. It just kind of blew them away."
Pray admitted to feeling "terrified" because he had never done a movie about one family. But most of the Paskowitzes embraced it. Some of the children said their siblings expressed emotions in the film that they never shared with each other, and witnessing it opened lines of communication. Mom Juliette has seen it about 30 times, according to Pray.
Yet, as one might expect after learning about Doc, the patriarch has not viewed "Surfwise." Doc didn't particularly like or trust Pray, but he submitted to filming -- a five-year process from start to finish -- on behalf of his wife and family.
"It sort of blew my mind that he was not going to watch it," said Pray. "But he's in control at all times. He's a very extreme personality, a complex, fascinating, driven individual. He was for sure the hardest character to nail down. He feels it's shameful and self-aggrandizing that there be a movie made about him. But I wish he'd see it and realize that it's not a tribute."
Now in his mid-80s, Doc is still devoted to a life of good health devoid of medications and money (and full of calisthenics in the buff and, of course, surfing).
One of the biggest challenges for Pray involved striking a balance in the 93-minute documentary. "Sometimes it was like 'The Partridge Family' on surfboards," he said. "And that just didn't feel right, because there was a lot of despair and pain exhibited in the interviews." At other times, it felt too dark.
In addition, there's sexual language that elicits audible gasps from audiences, Pray said. "There's a wackiness to it. But if you hang out with the family, that's how they talk."
In the end, "I respect (Doc) for doing what he did," Pray said. "The lesson is you can't hurt people along the way. So I don't think he did it right. ... But it's sure a lot better to try than to not."