Interweaving amazing archive footage with a compelling story, Bustin’ Down the Door is a superlative surfing documentary even non-aficionados can enjoy. Debuting filmmakers Jeremy Gosch and Monika Gosch recount a story little known outside the surfing world: how in 1974 maverick wave riders Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, Shaun and Michael Tomson, Mark Richards, Ian Cairns and Peter Townend took Hawaii’s Oahu North Shore by storm. This brash Aussie/South African contingent grew up in hot surf spots from Durban in South Africa to Australia’s Gold Coast, but none compared to the alluring challenge of Oahu’s northwest corner, where north Pacific swells in winter combined with the vast underwater coral structure to produce truly mountainous waves, sometimes topping thirty feet! These men turned a parochial pastime into a major sport and spawned a multi-million dollar industry along the way. Yet in their time there was no industry to speak of, which meant these surfing heroes had to wait till an awards ceremony in 2007 and the release of this documentary before they got any recognition.
The filmmakers include mesmerising images of Oahu’s intimidating waves and the bronzed gods who rode them, but it is the human aspect, the insight into their brittle psyches that compels. Emotional background stories illustrate how each surfer was driven by a need to prove himself in the face of poverty or past tragedy. Wayne Bartholomew touchingly breaks down in tears recalling how he had to steal to buy food for his family. Shaun Thomson, also credited as co-writer and executive producer, also wells up near the fadeout, admitting: “I’ve been through tough times, but surfing can make it better.” Thomson also admits rivalry played its part in pushing him and his cohorts to take bigger risks and forge audacious new moves.
1975 proved a turning point as the old surfer sub-culture gradually gave way to these determined young men eager to go pro and bring legitimacy to their sport - at a time when surfers were largely dismissed as hippie dropouts. Articulate, erudite and media-savvy, they rode the wave of surf movies, television coverage and magazine articles to make pro-surfing a reality and admittedly, underline their status as surfing superheroes. As the film reveals, this caused some friction between the pushy, competitive Aussie newcomers and the more laid-back Hawaiians, for whom surfing was inextricably bound to their native culture.
The situation spun wildly out of control when both Bartholomew and Ian Cairns penned articles that unintentionally rubbed some locals up the wrong way. Enter Eddie Rothman, co-founder of the Dai Hui organisation also known as the Black Shorts and a man who, as depicted here, still cuts quite an imposing figure. As self-styled protectors of Hawaiian culture, the Black Shorts provided what is euphemistically referred to as “water security”, which essentially involved intimidating and sometimes physically abusing outsiders. Rothman chuckles through his interview, claiming ignorance of any overt violence but over the course of 1976, Wayne Bartholomew was beaten up and went into hiding, while a contract was taken out on Ian Cairns’ life. While some light is shed on this hitherto unmentioned dark underbelly of Hawaii’s surf culture, which included instances of rape and murder connected with drug syndicates, the film doesn’t delve that deeply and seems keen to stress there are no explicit connections to the Da Hui organisation. Partly because there is no evidence, but one suspects the makers did not want to open old wounds and risk derailing the industry they wanted to celebrate.
After all, it was the Hawaiian community itself, headed by renowned surf king Eddie Aikau who ensured Bartholomew and Cairns were safe to compete in championship surfing again. As the Seventies played out, their victories birthed a lucrative industry. The film ends with the charmingly wistful sight of these aging surfers riding the waves once again, but the question remains whether by going corporate surfing sacrificed any of its soul. Nevertheless, one can’t help but agree when one young surfer cites “girls, sun, sand and surf” as reasons for this being “the best job in the world.”