‘Maybe I’ve Got Some Screws Loose’: The Slab Surfer Taking Extreme Sport To New Levels | Surf

B.Before his fatal attempt to climb Mount Everest nearly a century ago, British mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb the world’s highest peak. “Because he’s there,” he famously replied.

Watching Facing Monsters, a recently released surf feature film, the same question comes to mind. What would drive someone to charge some of the strongest waves in the world?

In fact, it is more than that. The film about Western Australian surfer Kerby Brown is not so much about big wave surfing as it is about dangerous wave surfing. This is extreme sport taken to a whole new level.

There are plenty of big waves in the world, including many along Australia’s vast coastlines. Attempting to ride any wall of water more than a few feet high carries risk, but Brown takes death-defying surfing to a new level. Riding monster slabs as they erupt onto the shoreline (deep-sea waves crashing violently into shallow reefs) is the protagonist’s specialty. Why do it?

Kerby Brown tackles a monster wave. Photography: Andrew Semark

“A lot of big wave guys chase the same waves, the same waves,” says Brown, on the phone from his home in Western Australia’s southern tip, near the monster waves he likes to surf. “I don’t like that scene. For me it’s about getting away from it all. A lot of the waves I see are really remote and pristine areas. That’s a huge draw for me, getting away from my normal day-to-day, completely disconnecting, encountering some of the most raw and powerful natural elements: the ocean.

“In particular, these really heavy, challenging and unpredictable waves, there is so much involved, there are so many unknowns,” he adds. “It’s such a special feeling, it makes me feel alive. That’s where I feel most comfortable: in the ocean, away from the daily hustle and bustle of society.”

If it’s a hallmark of a good movie to stick with the viewer, I’ve been transfixed ever since I saw the opening sequence (even now, several weeks later, the scene occasionally pops into my head randomly). There is Brown floating in the water; then Brown lying face down, bloodied and bruised; and then, in one of the most stunning surf scenes I’ve ever seen on screen, Brown surfs a twisted slab straight onto dry rock. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion; as Brown surfs the barrel of the wave, it explodes around him, knocking the surfer into the reef. It’s an amazing scene, except it’s right there on tape.

Big wave surfer Kerby Brown.
Photography: Andrew Semark
A shot from Facing Monsters, a documentary on the life of Kerby Brown.
Photo from Facing Monsters, a documentary about the life of Kerby Brown. Photography: Andrew Semark

Facing monsters is not for the faint-hearted. The film is 100 minutes of these death-defying waves, in beautiful high definition. Rick Rifici’s ocean cinematography is impressive: Western Australia couldn’t ask for a better long-form tourism ad. Amid sweeping views of the ocean, Brown dances through 30-foot waves like a ballerina. However, a sense of apprehension hangs over them. “It’s like inviting me to her funeral,” admits Brown’s father, Glenn, as he watches from a boat as her sons, Kerby, and her brother, Cortney, narrowly defy catastrophic injury.

After the harrowing opening sequence, it’s not long before the hazards of big wave surfing resurface. The brothers watch a wave off the Midwest coast break right in front of a rocky shelf. “You look at it and think: how can you navigate that?” asks Cortney, a fellow surfer and Brown’s preferred companion for jet skiing (big-wave surfers are often lured into the wave by a ski). For ordinary humans, that would be the end of the investigation, isn’t it. The wave breaks directly on the ledge; it should be impossible to navigate. Not for the Brown brothers.

“That place was a real starting point for me,” says Brown. “It was a wave that wasn’t considered rideable, people didn’t think it was a real wave. It’s where I first opened my mind to different possibilities. It literally comes out of the deep water and breaks on that dry, shallow ledge.”

Kerby and his brother Cortney Brown.
Kerby and his brother Cortney Brown. Photography: Andrew Semark

Early in the film, Brown mounts it with aplomb, climbs into the barrel and shoots off, the ledge just feet away. But a few waves later, Brown’s fortunes change. He skims past the face and approaches the wave, only to fall and head straight for the rock.

“I was so lucky,” he says. “I was thrown and I basically went straight to the reef. They just caught me. I had lots of cuts and bruises and stuff, but I think I fell at the right angle so I didn’t do any serious damage. You are obviously at the mercy of the ocean.

“There are some waves where you don’t know if you’re going to do well, because they throw you against the rocks,” he adds. “That’s the most dangerous part of riding these waves: there’s literally no water underneath.”

On that particular wave, Brown finally came out of breath: his brother swooped to the rescue on the jet ski, propelling through the foam. “I hit my head on the reef at that point,” he says in the film as he climbs on the ski, in what is a ridiculously low-key comment from someone who could have died.

But this is not the last of Brown’s brushes with near death. I’m trying to avoid spoiling the movie, but I’ll just quote Brown. “Sometimes you get really lucky and don’t get too hurt,” he says. “But obviously, as you saw in the movie, that’s not always the case.”

Beyond the compelling visuals of the Brown brothers chasing these surreal waves, Facing Monsters is primarily a meditation on what motivates them to do so. “It’s an addiction, really, to ride those waves,” says one observer. Another is more direct: “Maybe I have some loose screws.”

“I’ve always had my own personal demons that I’ve wrestled with,” says Brown. Cinematography: Rick Rifici

The film is also a powerful Kerby Brown biopic. It tells the story of a talented young surfer, who briefly tried the competitive circuit only to get bored of the grind (he’s not alone; even Australian world number 2 Jack Robinson has complained about the difficulties he faced trying to qualify for the World Surf League).

Instead, Brown traveled and chased big waves. He helped with the hell of it: the monsters in the film’s title are apparently a double reference, to the monster waves Brown fearlessly rides and his own inner turmoil.

“I’ve always had my own personal demons that I’ve struggled with,” he says during one scene. “I have used the ocean to help me in those moments. When I don’t have the ocean, and when I’m not surfing, I tend to turn to alcohol and drugs to get through it.”

Facing Monsters tells a moving human story of dealing with these challenges and quickly growing up after becoming a father. Fatherhood is a major theme and a major tension in the film; Brown comes to understand that chasing dangerous waves is at odds with his responsibilities as a father. “It’s not just me, that’s a huge factor,” he says at one point. “Before they showed up, it wouldn’t even be a question, I’d just be back, as soon as I could.”

“I mean it’s pretty raw,” says Brown of the Facing Monsters documentary. Photography: Andrew Semark

Big wave surfing is not a new genre for the sport – surf magazines have been covering these surfers for decades. 100 Foot Wave, a six-part series launched last year (available on Binge), recalls the discovery of Nazaré, the world’s largest wave, in Portugal a decade ago. But what makes Facing Monsters unique is its unfiltered access to these surfers as they chase such incredible, demanding, and dangerous waves.

In one scene later in the film, the viewer is in the front row as Brown falls hard. He’s hard to watch, but he’s also incredibly captivating, because he’s so real. The rush, the fear, the pain: Facing Monsters is a no-frills look at the ups and downs of chasing the thrill that comes with riding such monsters.

“I mean it’s pretty raw,” says Brown. “I guess that’s what I really wanted from this doco: for it to be as real and raw and honest as it could be. I just wanted to be a true representation of the characters, a fragment, a window into my life.”

Brown says the production team had been wondering how the film would end: It had been in development for five years, under the watchful eye of director Bentley Dean. “I always said, ‘If you follow me for a while, things will happen naturally: the drama unfolds. There are always ups and there are always downs.

“It’s the nature of what we do,” he adds. “The risks are there.”

  • Facing Monsters is now showing in select Australian cinemas and will be released internationally soon. It will be available to stream later this year.

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