Behind the Camera

It was the day of Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011 that I set my resolve to make this movie. Stunned by the surreal images of destruction on TV, it felt as if the very foundation on which I relied had completely collapsed from under my feet—as if I had been flung into a void.
While news media, in response to this natural disaster, relayed the cruel actuality in which many lives were lost through an "enemy" tsunami, this scenario didn’t settle well with me. Does nature, the sea, or an earthquake take the lives of humans? How can one reconcile nature’s role in humanity in such circumstances? I felt that the key to this question lay in one’s view of life and death.

I decided to figuratively "pack" humanity’s primordial theme of the ocean, life and death, and set out on a journey. My destination was to the men who offered their lives to the sea—to the men who experienced both its joy and fear—who were acquainted with the transiency of life, near-death experiences, and raw delight. How do these spirits who survived the inexorable great outdoors identify with nature, life, and death?

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Photo from Aloha Death

The journey began in March 2013.

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Hideaki Ishii and Dick Hoole
Photo from Aloha Death

My travels began in Australia. Accompanying me on my trip were my mentors and masters, filmmakers Hideaki Ishii and Dick Hoole, who had trekked through the heart of Indonesia together thirty years earlier.
I arrived in Australia, determined to take each moment as it came, without holding any expectations. As weeks passed without incident, however, I became impatient, yet reminded myself that all I needed to do was to dedicate myself fully to the task at hand; so, I continued, unceasingly filming the ocean and sky, morning, and night.

Early one morning, while shooting the rising sun, Dick approached me and said, "I’m heading out to the Gold Coast. Would you care to join me?" A few hours later, travelling together, we had reached a quiet residential area on the Gold Coast. There, an elegant old woman emerged from a cozy little house. Dick and the woman spoke to one another with an air of fondness as they brought photos and posters out of her house and proceeded to load them into the car.

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Joan Peterson
Photo from Aloha Death

Without understanding what was going on, I shot the entire scene. At the end of their exchanges, the woman handed Dick a small black and white checkered shopping bag. On the way home, when I asked Dick what had just happened, he explained that this woman was the mother of Australia’s legendary surfer, Michael Peterson (known as "MP"), who had died in 2012. Contained within that small bag were the ashes of her son. According to Dick, we were to deliver MP’s ashes to Bells Beach, located 2,000 kilometers away.

Bells Beach is holy ground for surfers. Scheduled at that sacred site was a gathering among the world’s top professional surfers for a surfing competition, and planned somewhere in the agenda was a ceremony to scatter MP’s ashes. His mother was to participate in the ceremony, but as Australia’s regulations prohibit transport of ashes or remains by airplane, Dick had been asked to carry the ashes to the site—a 2,000 kilometer distance from the Gold Coast. While seated in the passenger’s seat with the ashes cradled in my lap, I became conscious that this was the true start of my journey.

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Michael Peterson
Photo: Dick Hoole

Australia is vast. This became evident once we hit the road. Along our voyage, Dick made pit stops at a variety of surf shops, marketing DVDs of his films and replenishing their stock. That was his seasonal job. We drove as long as we could—boarding in motels, and in the homes of Dick's friends. Along the way, I was to meet many people.

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Albert Falzon
Photo from Aloha Death

As fate would have it, the very first person I encountered was Albert ("Alby") Falzon, filmmaker of the legendary surf movie, Morning of the Earth. By the time we arrived at his home after a ride through a thunderstorm and heavy hail, a beautiful dusk had fallen. Bathed in clear light, making friendly exchanges with wild kangaroos, Alby appeared like an old man from a fairy tale.

Interviewing Alby, I detected no tone of fear when he spoke of death. His gentle demeanor, defined by his clear, blue eyes, appeared settled on the conviction of the perpetuity of the soul. And in passing time with this man, I felt my heart calm and become serene. Those hours we spent together were intense and profound. Before I realized it, it was nearing sunset. When the time came for us to leave, Dick unhurriedly retrieved the small bag containing MP’s ashes from the car, removed a handful from the plastic case inside, and showed them to Alby.

神Solemnly, Alby took the ashes, cradled them in both hands and stepped away; then, for a moment appearing lost in deep thought, he impulsively scattered them over the ground. As the powerful atmosphere of the interview faded away, the solitary image of Alby, with his back to us, made an indelible impression.

Days continue, regardless of whether its moments contain those of grief or delight. On a journey, that awareness intensifies. We neared the midpoint of our destination.

Terry Fitzgerald, a quintessential champion surfer of Australia, was the next person we were to meet. We caught up with him at a beautiful beach north of Sydney.

Appearing on time, Terry was exceptionally cheerful; but once the interview began, and as the subject of death arose, the air around him became somber.

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Terry Fitzgerald
Photo from Aloha Death

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Terry Fitzgerald at Sunset Beach
Photo courtesy Terry Fitzgerald

Beneath a perfectly crystal blue sky, he told us of the death of his beloved son. Through the camera lens, his eyes were beautiful and gentle. The death of a loved one is accompanied by a sense of loss and grief. And without that sense of loss and grief, one may not be able to love. Just as life and death are bound, grief and loss go hand in hand with love; one most likely cannot exist without the other. We continued further south.

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Terry with his sons
Photo courtesy Terry Fitzgerald

The remainder of the trip continued without incident. We finally arrived at Bells Beach, and succeeded in safely delivering MP’s ashes to the organizer of the ceremony. Under the watch of surfers and spectators who gathered from all over the world, a solemn ceremony commenced. The role of scattering MP’s ashes into the sea was served by his brother.

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Michael with his brother
Photo courtesy Joan Peterson

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Ash scattering ceremony
Photo from Aloha Death

While Dick filmed the scattering of ashes out in the open sea, I shot from my camera alongside MP’s mother. Through the finder of my camera, I could detect tears flowing behind her sunglasses as the ashes spread out over the ocean. The emotional depth of a mother who lost her son is beyond my imagination, but its undisguised form held a pureness of emotion that flooded the air with sanctity. Once the ashes were scattered, MP’s brother returned to the shore, firmly took his mother’s hand in his, and they departed from the ceremony, leaving behind a potently beautiful image.

We met a few other legendary figures along our travels. As spectators of numerous gorgeous sunsets, beautiful people, starry skies, sunrises, and the infinite expressions of the ocean, we covered, in total, over 5,000 kilometers across Australian soil.

May 2013.
Our journey continues to California.

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John Peck
Photo from Aloha Death

The expedition continued to California in May of 2013, with Dick joining the crew from Australia. Among our encounters in California, there was one in particular that interested me most—one with John Peck. John is a surfer whose career spans the breadth of contemporary surfing history; he is also a yoga master. He appeared almost superhuman.

His words were powerful: "The fear of death causes many negative problems in the world. And nothing triumphs over faith." When we parted, he drew my head towards his, then, strongly pressing on the center of my forehead—where my "third eye" is—he loudly cried out, "Aloha!" Immediately, I felt heat rise to my head, the pores over my entire body open up, and a powerful surge of energy welled from the pit of my stomach. Energy from the cosmos flows to people, and that energy flows from one person to another. This energy is not perceptible to the eye, but it is certain that it exists.

Oahu Island, November 2013

Later, in our travels to Oahu, an encounter with Ricky Grigg left an intense impression on me. Afflicted with a severe illness, knowing that his own death was imminent, Ricky poured out his feelings on the subject while I reflected on his musings. Although this courageous legend who lived the Genesis of big wave surfing had become frail, he was full of energy. Eventually, the physical body falls into decay, but I believe the energy that birthed its vital spirit never dwindles. That’s what the god of surfing, Jerry Lopez, pointed out when we visited him in Oregon after we were finished filming in Hawaii. He said, "Energy is eternal delight."

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Ricky, who had a fever even on the day of filming, poured out his heart to us about physical pain. He said, "I almost drowned to death close to ten times in Waimea. If possible, I'd like to die at a sea in a big wave...But that is now a wish beyond my control..." During our two hours of filming, on the other side of the camera, Ricky was facing his own impending death, selecting his words as objectively as possible. His effort was courageous and brimming with love.

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Ricky Grigg (top and bottom)
Photo from Aloha Death

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Ricky Grigg
Photo from Aloha Death

When it was time to leave, Ricky walked us to the door to see us off, and only then looked at me and said, "Haven’t I met you somewhere before?" Since I had no recollection of such a meeting, I reflexively replied, “Perhaps we met in a previous life." As I was regretting my tactless reply, Ricky quietly gazed back at me with a smile.

California, June 2014

It was June of 2014. We had been spending every day immersed in the final editing phase of the project in California, and had just come to the segment on Ricky when news of his death arrived. There he was on the screen, talking, riding waves, deep diving with dolphins, and smiling; yet Ricky Grigg had departed from this world. Believing in the film’s potential to convey the lucid and positive energy of this man, who was facing death, to each viewer, I once again set out to the sea of editing work… The sudden news had put me in an emotional state. As consolation, JP, who had been editing with us daily from morning to night, said to me "You and me, we’re still alive…."

To create a documentary is to live through a journey. Triumph, disappointment, anger, joy, sadness, empathy, and inspiration—the cornucopia of feelings that accompany the experience of being alive were felt afresh on this trip. And now, I’m facing the end of that long voyage. There is a beginning, and there is an end; then comes another beginning…So, for the time being, I say good-bye to "now". Pau for now.

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Photo from Aloha Death

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