I did not want Splinters. I have immensely disliked sports movies for as long as I can remember. The exception is Bring It On, only because it is nothing but pure, quotable joy.Otherwise, save the court side drama for someone else, I have little tolerance for the wide world of sports.
However, I was asked to watch the movie, and so be it. As I rocked back and forth in the theater chair, fiddling with my notebook and pen, I realized I had nothing to write. No frame of reference on the competitive world of international surfing nor much knowledge of Papua New Guinea except that it was featured in a study about how media influences young girls’ perception of themselves. Up the creek without a paddle, I laid my back into the seat and allowed the sights and sounds to wash over me. It took all of four seconds of footage of the cyan-colored waves to get me to relax. The Splinters stuck, and I sat in rapt attention for the duration of the movie.
After a brief history lesson on the introduction of surf boards to Vanimo, Papua New Guinea, in the 1980s, the sport doc manages to explain a great deal on the culture and economic strife of the people in Vanimo, which has become the site of the first national surfing competition in the country. As one observant judge states, “This competition decides whether they can put toilets in their homes or send their kids to school. It is life-changing.”
But we are taken away from the hoopla to the four months prior to the tournament. We are introduced to two men of the Sunset Surf Club, Angelus and Ezekiel, and two sisters from the Vanimo Surf Club, Lesley and Susan. All have bright dreams of escaping provincial life on the island through surfing.Their training montages resemble that of Rocky, except with truly hard labor. Their families are brought out in front of the camera, too, because it is a strong community of supporters pulling resources together for survival.
But all is not paradise in Vanimo. One subject that is difficultly dealt with are the women’s rights in the village. Not only are they still bought and sold as property, but it is customary to beat one’s wife. The two sisters in the movie often complained how they are hardly ever allowed to practice because the men hoard the boards. In one harrowing scene, also included in the trailer, a man beats a woman into unconsciousness while her neighbors watch on. Women in the village joke and talk about being bought and how they cannot be hit until they are bought. In another instance, a woman’s entire wardrobe is burned as punishment for sleeping with a married man. Much of the drama in Splinters deals with the conflicts of divorce, love, and gender norms in society.
And the Splinters themselves? They are parts of fallen trees or broken canoes used for bellysurfing. This was the traditional way locals surfed until the invasion of Western culture introduced surf boards. So like many things in Papua New Guinea, its popularity is waning, relegated to child’s play when compared to the aerodynamic colored boards from Billabong or Quick Silver. Cultural history and customs wash away with every new wave of a generation. Will the Splinters survive in a new world? The question stands to both the village and their surf champions. We can only watch and cross our fingers, just like the villagers viewing the competition on the shores of Vanimo. We can only hope.