On Saturday, September 18, 2004, the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco hosted the premiere showing of Thomas Campbell’s latest film, Sprout. Going to this event was like no other that I’d been to in the Mission District, or San Francisco for that matter. Instead of the usual lot of tiresome art school hipsters (although there were some), the outside of the theatre was swarming with surfers who came out not because it was the coolest thing going on that night but because they love surfing. In the rich tradition of the independent surf films of the 50’s and 60’s, Sprout signifies the resurrection of the genre.
As a major sponsor of Sprout, Converse (one of the longest running brands and supporters of surf culture) contributed much of the funds that enabled Campbell’s vision to come to fruition. Filmed over the course of 4 years and shot entirely on a 16mm Bolex, Sprout documents the travels, surfing and lifestyle of some of the most influential people involved in the sport to date, including: Joel Tudor, Dan Malloy, David Rastovich, Ozzie Wright, Skip Frye, Alex Knost, Rob Machado, Ozzie Wright, C.J. Nelson, Kassia Meador, Belinda Baggs and Jimmy Gamboa among others.
Opening the show on this particular night was musician Neil Halstead (who’s music is featured on the soundtrack) who played a few acoustic ballads that set the quiet, soulful and spiritual mood that would continue through the end of the film. Never having heard his music or voice before, I was moved by his honest lyrics and amazing voice. Once Halstead finished his set and Campbell gave a short introduction to Sprout, the lights were lowered…
Despite being forced to sit on a step in the balcony of the overflowing theatre, I was amazed at the beautiful imagery of figures sliding effortlessly along the waves… tip-toe to the front of the board… spin… and tip-toe back. Sun sparked in droplets off the surface of ocean, surfers glided toward the camera on waves that engulfed the audience. The visual quality of the film was bright, lucid and beautiful-hands down!
Where I think it lacked was in content. During Campbell’s initial introduction to Sprout, he said (now I’m paraphrasing), the film was about breaking down walls that exist between longboarders and shortboarders, celebrating our abilities as humans to enjoy the ocean, and accessing the water in every way possible. This includes all kinds of boards: logs, eggs, mats, fishes, shorties, single-fin guns, bodyboards and bodysurfing.” While the film did touch on this aspect, I don’t think it was the most compelling aspect driving the film.
Overall, the impression I walked away with had little to do with what Campbell told the audience it was about. Instead the film felt more like a beautifully composed album of film clips and great music with only a slightly funny deadpan monologue. I guess that’s where this argument gets complicated. Surfers will argue it isn’t an art film, artists will argue it’s an art film about surfing. As an art film (this can’t be overlooked since Thomas Campbell is one of the most recognized artists today), I feel it paddles for the wave, but isn’t strong enough to stand up. But as a surf flick, it is succeeds and surpasses my expectations-one for the DVD library (if I had one). Highlights for me were when one of Sprout’s stars gives his own hilarious take on different “chaka” (a word used as a greeting or to show praise) variations which you just have to see to understand, as well as the body surfing and the sheer beauty of it’s imagery. Go see this film!