After years in advertising, documentary and drama, it’s safe to say Christopher Nelius knows the camera. He also knows that very human form of obsession, when you find something that totally completes you – whether it be heavy metal in his work for Medibank, or the waves, in his acclaimed documentary Girls Can’t Surf, about those pioneers who called for gender parity in the sport. Oh, and he used to be a rock guitarist. So there’s that.
‘Girls Can’t Surf’
Our Documentary Takes On Surfing's Boy's Club
As Girls Can’t Surf, our acclaimed documentary details, by the 1980s, the boys club of surfing was well and truly established. There was a sense of community, sure, but one entirely defined by machismo. It was a culture in which men were paid more; given more opportunities; seen more widely; celebrated more loudly.
Sponsorship deals were cut-throat, falling to a select few, and eking out a living through the sport was a challenge that could almost exclusively only be met by the white, the straight, and the male.
But change did come, and in the form of a group of trail-blazing young women who forever expanded what was possible not just in surfing, but in competitive sports around the world.
Girls Can’t Surf, directed by Christopher Nelius, tells the story of these women, and the hardships that they overcame in order to make surfing a more equitable, and diverse sport.
The documentary is serious about those hardships. Detailing a sexism that played out on both a micro and macro scale — everything from chauvinistic jokes to sleazy branding that diminished surfers down to their bodies to women’s surfing being shuffled around in order to fit with the men’s lunchbreaks — Girls Can’t Surf makes it clear that the world of surfing needed a serious structural change, one that required a community to form between disparate women with their own struggles and their own skills.
Many of those women are interviewed in the documentary, speaking frankly – and in some cases, for the first time – about the hardships they overcame. Jodie Cooper, who by 1983 had become one of the biggest names in international surfing, tells her story, as does Layne Beachley, Pam Burridge and many more.
Their voices direct, their gazes unwavering, these women lay out the problems with a culture they loved that did not love them back.
That, in fact, is the powerful message hidden under the sand and foam of Girls Can’t Surf: that you have the capacity to change even the most daunting, ingrained of cultures, and fashion a world in your own image, with your own salt-water licked two hands.