The director behind 'Sea of Darkness' and 'Heavy Water' is also working on The Sunny Garcia story.
It’s early on Tuesday morning in Sydney when I get a message from the colourful director, Michael Oblowitz. South African born Oblowitz has just travelled from his home in L.A., via Coolangatta, to promote his new film with Nathan Fletcher, Heavy Water.
“Luke, are we surfing today?” arrives the message.
A plan is made to meet at Michael’s short-term rental, which, as it happens boasts a stunning view of the beach. From the balcony we watch a bowly, four foot left bend into the southern corner at Bondi. The lineup is fanned by an early morning offshore and 67-year-old Oblowitz is fizzing with excitement about trying out his new Gunther Rohn 7’6”. The board is over three inches thick and features six deep channels and a distinctive green, resin tint. With an eye for dramatic effect he tells me has dubbed it the ‘Green Mamba’. The Green Mamba he explains was a ‘scary fucking venomous snake’ that was common to the Cape Town region where he grew up surfing alongside Gunther and Des Sawyer, the father of world long-boarding champion, Steven Sawyer.
Amongst surfers Oblowitz (who also boasts a host of Hollywood credits) is best know as the creator of Sea of Darkness, the intriguing documentary, which prods at surfing’s murky underbelly and explores how cult figures like Mike Boyum (the founder of the original G-land camp) and Peter McCabe funded their exploits via major cocaine rackets. After it premiered at Dennis Hopper’s CineVegas Film Festival to rave reviews in 2009 the film went on to win a stack of film festival awards and a Surfer Poll award for best film of the year. However, Sea of Darkness was never widely released. Instead it exists as a pirated digital file passed surreptitiously between those who have a copy. Rumour and innuendo suggested the film was buried because it threatened to implicate certain people in the elaborate drug trafficking networks it discusses. However, Oblowitz is at pains to indicate that it hasn’t been released because he and Mentawai pioneer, Martin Daly, have never been able to agree on a release deal. Oblowitz explains that Daly, who also features prominently in the film, owns seventy percent of the film’s rights while he owns twenty five percent. They share fifty percent of the rights to re-make the film in drama form. While we get ready for a surf I watch him talk out loud as he engages in an email exchange with Daly about a company (the same one that produces the TV drama Homeland) that is offereing a deal for a mainstream release of the documentary and a possible follow up twelve part, TV drama. This all happens while the effervescent Oblowitz is struggling to pull on a steamer and two knee braces and muse about his new Green Mamba.
While the world will have to wait to see Sea of Darkness Oblowitz is happy to talk about his new film, Heavy Water, which features Nathan Fletcher. “At last I have a film that everyone is happy to see,” he chuckles. Heavy Water charts Nathan’s evolution from a kid who grew up in the famous but zany Fletcher family through to his days as a California surf punk, and finally his transition into a surfer pushing the boundaries of big wave surfing. Heavy Water had a soft launch at the Byron Bay Film Festival two years ago but has been re-edited to include more archival footage. “Much more of Jay Adams who was a major influence on Nathan,” insists Michael enthusiastically. At the time of the earlier release of Heavy Water I interviewed Oblowitz in more detail about the film and a range of subject matters, including the suppression of Sea of Darkness.
With the Mamba waxed up tail to nose, we make our way down to the shore. I ask him about the documentary he has been working on about the life of Sunny Garcia. “I’m really upset about the Sunny situation,” he indicates. “I’ve been filming and working with him for the last ten years.” Oblowitz makes it clear that he has amassed a massive back-log of footage, much of which details Sunny’s long battle with severe depression.
Oblowitz indicates he already had a two-hour rough cut of the documentary about Sunny ready when things recently took a well-documented tragic turn. For now the film is in a state of flux while everyone awaits the outcome for Sunny, who remains in an induced coma. Michael indicates that there has been major interest in the Sunny project from Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar winning director of the Hurt Locker. Oblowitz has a one third share in the project along with Sunny and one other partner. Making the film meant immersing himself in a sometimes volatile Hawaiian scene and getting close to Sunny’s friends and extensive family network. As we walk along the Bondi promenade and weigh up the best peak, he suggests that "A big chunk of money would go to Sunny’s family," without spelling out the scenario no one wants to see unfold.
Out in the water there are less sombre subjects to consider. After a few waves on the Green Mamba Oblowitz is singing the praises of his old friend Gunther Rohn. “Man he knows how to make a good board,” he enthuses after a good ride. Between sets Oblowitz slips easily into banter with the local surfers and assures everyone that it’s way better here than in California right now. From shore I watch him ride his last wave, an outside bowl that morphs into a zippy, inside left that lets the Mamba get up to top gear. Oblowitz handles it well trimming all the way to the beach before making an expectedly dramatic kick-out.
Michael Oblowitz has an abundance of creative energy a heart in the right place and big enough balls to tell surfing’s toughest stories. As a result he is one of surf culture’s most interesting and potentially influential figures.
Look out for a major interview with Oblowitz, where he tells the full story behind Sea of Darkness, in an upcoming issue of Tracks.