Women in the Surf: The beginning

Women in the Surf: The beginning
Produced with the assistance of the Women’s Film Fund of the Australian Film Commission and the Victorian Department of Sport and Recreation.
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Interviews with the first woman surfer Isabel Letham, who tells how she first got on a surfboard in 1914, and Graham Cassidy, then president of the Australian Professional Surfing Association. 

Summary by Susan Lambert

This sequence sets the scene for the film through two key interviews inter-cut with great shots of women surfing the waves. Isabel Letham describes how unheard of women surfers were at the turn of the twentieth century and Graham Cassidy describes the sexist attitudes that prevailed toward women surfing during the 1960s and ‘70s and how they were only beginning to change in the 1980s.

Title Synopsis

Women in the Surf is a film of its time – a reminder that the Australian surf was not always enjoyed equally by both men and women. It combines a look at the sexism in the sport and the perseverance of women to challenge this. With no narration the film relies on poetic images of women surfing interspersed with interviews to give a sense of the history of the sport.

Title Curator's Notes

While tracing the history of women’s surfing and its emergence as a serious sport, Women in the Surf lingers over poetic shots of women riding the surf. Inter-cut with these visuals are interviews with first-timers, amateurs and the new professional women surfers – all giving an insight into how they broke into this male-dominated sport and why they love it.

The stories of Isabel Letham, Australia’s first woman surfer, and 'Ma’ Bendall, who surfed in the 1950s, are a stark reminder of how unusual and risky it was for women to enter the sport. Amazing black-and-white footage of them surfing is a prelude to the 1970s when women got together to take on the social taboos and male chauvinist attitudes that were preventing them from competing.

In light of recent surfers such as Layne Beachley (seven-times world champion), Stephanie Gilmore (four-times world champion and counting), and other Australian women surfers recognised all over the world for their skill, grace and competitiveness, these attitudes toward women surfers are terribly outdated. However, when this film was made in 1986, women’s surfing was just breaking as a professional sport – due largely to the Australian Women’s Surfriding Association getting women into amateur competitions. These images of women surfing were not only visually exciting but groundbreaking.

Stories of future legends like 13-year-old Pam Burridge and her mother travelling to competitions in Hawaii are fascinating. The film also documents the time of long hair and ugg boots when Bells Beach in Victoria started to become a hot spot on the map for world surfing competitions.

Women in the Surf has a relaxed pace and no driving narration. This invites the viewer to ‘kick back’ and enjoy the visually powerful images of women taking the waves. The film does, however, lack one important element that was a signature of surf movies at the time – a strong music score.

Notes by Susan Lambert

    Ingrid Hillman, Esta Handfield
    Mandy Smith
    Burkhard Dallwitz