There’s an irony in the title of the documentary “Surfwise” that may not immediately be apparent. Because this story of a man who, as a TV news segment explains, “gave up being a doctor to travel with his family in a tiny camper from one wave to another,” is an honest look at a complicated human situation, it turns out to be a darker film than might be expected.
That family consists of 85-year-old Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, his wife, Juliette, and their nine children (eight sons and a daughter). A surfer since the 1930s and the man who introduced the sport to Israel, Paskowitz was such a bear for the waves he came up with an idea that would make today’s manufacturers of reality TV blush with envy.
Unwilling to be chained to anything, determined to have his children around him always, Paskowitz and his family of 10 spent close to two decades driving around Israel shoehorned into a 24-foot camper like, says daughter Navah, “small monkeys in a monkey cage.” There was very little money and no formal education, but there was a life rich in daily surfing and the kind of wisdom Paskowitz felt you could only get from experience.
Doc Paskowitz is like that even today, spouting ideas and philosophies about everything under the sun. Obsessed with being Jewish, surfing and his sex life, not necessarily in that order, a man who, his brother says, always “had a lot of trouble acting conventionally,” Paskowitz has the mien and temperament of an Old Testament prophet, a cult leader, or both.
But while the vision of healthy living, surfing every day and being able to leave any place at a moment’s notice may sound like a fantasy to people tied to 9-to-5 drudgery, the reality, as director Doug Pray reveals, could be otherwise at times.
Pray, whose previous documentaries include the excellent “Hype!” on the Seattle music scene, has successfully walked a delicate line here, showing us both the lure and the pleasures of the vagabond life as paterfamilias Doc envisioned it as well as the more difficult reality that his obedient family inevitably endured.
What “Surfwise” reveals is that the dark side of the surfing doctor was that he could be a terrible tyrant, someone whose controlling, self-centered rigidity limited his children in ways large and small as much as it gave them richer lives.
For one thing, the parents’ insistence on having sex every night in that tiny camper whether their kids were asleep or not has left the children with unpleasant, scarring memories to this day.
Having even more lasting effects was Paskowitz’s insistence that no one be allowed to go to school. That meant that many of his offspring had to give up on their dreams and have continued to struggle as adults to function in a society no one prepared them for. “Bum, surfer, rock star, that’s what he trained us for,” one of the children says, and that turns out to be as much truth as hyperbole.
One result of this systemic dysfunction is that when “Surfwise” opens, some of the Paskowitzes have not seen their siblings for close to a decade. Though the film ends up positing that a flawed family is better than no family at all, even that turns out to be a difficult proposition for some of the members to embrace.
“Surfwise.” MPAA rating: R for language and some sexual material. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. At the Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.