Filmmaker invites others to share their passion at San Diego Surf Film Festival


By Karen Billing

Filmmaker Pierce Kavanaugh, who grew up in La Jolla, said he received his first camera when he was 13 years old, a gift to his father that was re-purposed as his own.

“My brother and I just grabbed it and took it to the beach,” Kavanaugh said. He lugged around the VHS equipment and made goofy little movies of his friends using whatever was playing on the radio as his soundtrack as he shot from the sand.

His equipment and expertise has grown since those days, but his love for the art of filmmaking remains the same. He hopes to give young filmmakers an audience and the opportunity to share their passion with the first San Diego Surf Film Festival, May 11-13, at Bird’s Surf Shed in the Mission Bay area.

The deadline for submissions is March 31, and there are no constraints on the entries. A screening panel will choose which films make the festival, but the filmmakers themselves will be the judges.

Kavanaugh has found some international success with his surf film, “Manufacturing Stoke,” released last year with his production company Misfit Pictures, comprised of his wife, Petra, and partner, Geoffrey Smart.

The film’s theme is one of sustainability — as the film’s website states, no other sport is as intrinsically linked to nature as surfing is, and yet a majority of the materials used are environmentally toxic. Filmed up and down the California coast, it features interviews with “grassroots up and comers” who are “redefining what a surfer is supposed to ride,” looking at the progress of things like wooden surfboards, recycled materials, and organic clothing.

The movie has been around the world — to France, Germany and Australia — where it is up for “Surf Film of the Year” at the Byron Bay International Film Festival next month. Kavanaugh and crew will head to Australia for three weeks for the 11-day festival, March 2-11. More than 900 films were submitted and theirs stood out.

“It’s not about awards though, it’s about getting the message out,” Kavanaugh said. “And it’s a unique message about sustainability in the surf industry. We just want people to see it.”

“… Although it would be nice to win,” Petra admitted.

Kavanaugh said he spent much of his youth on the beach as a water enthusiast and surfer. He got serious about filmmaking in college, getting a degree in film at UC Santa Barbara.

“Ever since then I’ve been trying to make it a full-time career, but it’s tough,” Kavanaugh said.

Part of the struggle as a beginner is that no one knows who you are. Lucky for Kavanaugh, he had a strong network of support. He started Misfit Pictures with Petra and Smart — “I’m the dreamer, she’s the connections and he (Geoffrey) is the nuts and bolts.”

Smart is not a surfer but said he finds it hard not to appreciate making a good surf film — “you can’t beat the beautiful imagery,” he said. The trio works with a skeleton crew, doing all the tasks themselves without any “glitz or red carpet” experiences while filming.

The company had a big break with “Manufacturing Stoke,” which was released last year. That success snowballed into the San Diego Surf Festival because Kavanaugh wanted a way to give back to other beginning filmmakers.

“We’re looking for independent filmmakers. We understand the struggle to get your films out there and get them seen,” Kavanaugh said. “We’re looking for people who do it for the passion and love for it.”

The San Diego Surf Film Festival, founded with help from Ed Lewis, of Leucadia, will be held at Bird’s Surf Shed. The shed is an amazing venue — the Quonset hut is decorated with more than 400 surfboards collected by owner Eric “Bird” Hoffman.

The festival is sponsored, so far, by Primo Beer and Enjoy Handplanes, which are made from recycled foam, broken surfboards and old wetsuits.

There will be solid prizes for winners — from GoPro cameras to a week’s stay at a surf resort. And there will be plenty of swag to go around — anyone who attends will leave with some kind of prize, be it a T-shirt or bars of surf wax.

The Misfit Pictures trio is currently putting the finishing touches on their next film, a short on local body surfer/whomper Angela Kristine Oschmann, whom they met body surfing in La Jolla. Called “What the Sea Gives Me,” the film will premiere at the San Diego Surf Ladies Board Shorts festival on Feb. 25 at the UCSD Loft.