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Sam Bleakely Interview

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Sam Bleakley is a Cab9 Team member, longboard surf champion and the host of Brilliant Corners, an adventure travel video series where Sam combines his passion for surfing with exploring coastlines and communities around the world. Throughout the series, Sam travels to some incredible off-the-beaten track locations, from Papua New Guinea to Zanzibar, and the result is a fascinating insight into different cultures and inspirational stories about the local communities, all to the backdrop of some stunningly beautiful scenery, and of course, surfing. We caught up with Sam to find out more.

Sam, for those of us who are not familiar with Brilliant Corners, please could you explain how it came about? 

It was actually way back in 2012 that I first set out to produce and present a series of documentaries exploring emerging surf cultures. I shot the first three episodes in Haiti, Jamaica and Barbados to cut my teeth (with no prior training as a filmmaker or presenter). Aiming to have five shows per series, the project came together thanks to a collaboration with a director called Leo McCrea to shoot a Liberia episode, culminating in a China episode commissioned by XTreme Video, who distributed season one which you can watch here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Brilliant-Corners/dp/B0798DR8ZQ

I called the show Brilliant Corners to follow in the footsteps of one of my books, Surfing Brilliant Corners (2010), with Thelonious Monk’s 1957 jazz album a metaphor for creatively exploring often overlooked places and shining positive light on them by celebrating local communities. The template was fairly experimental: not the best surfers in the best waves (which the surf filmmaking world does very well indeed), but narrative based journeys to document (what I believe to be) miss-represented places, and empower local surfers as ambassadors within their communities. Once a few tv royalty payments rolled in, I partnered with The Wave to produce a new season in Sierra Leone, Oman, Ghana, The Philippines and Mauritania, which distributed by TVF International and you can watch these here: https://stream.osn.com/category/brilliant-corners

The shows came to the attention of the World Surf League, so the latest season has been working full-time with them from August 2018 to February 2021. The quality really improved, and we changed the format to divide each location into three episodes, so that’s 18 episodes through Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, India, Senegal, Algeria and Zanzibar that you can see here: https://www.worldsurfleague.com/watch/415354/brilliant-corners I’ve really loved working closely with the WSL and in particular the producer Camille Herrera.

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The locations you travel to are unknown to many people, how do you choose where to go and film?

I studied Geography at Cambridge University with a real interest in travel writing and exploratory map work, and when I graduated I began a career as a professional longboarder both competing, working freelance for surf magazines and doing surf books, but specialising in adventure travel to unusual areas where surfing was either non-existent or just emerging, often in Africa and Asia. Through this period of work I made lots of links with people and places that I have been able to follow up in the film work. I also developed a deep fascination with Haiti. I had started a part-time PhD at Falmouth University researching Haiti through the lens of travel writing and mapping of surf breaks. There was a research grant for creative storytelling, and I thought it would be really exciting to explore making a presenter led surf travel film on Haiti alongside my ongoing PhD. Regularly portrayed as one of the economically poorest countries in the Americas - with a history shaped by vodou and political and environmental disasters – I was driven to showcase the thriving art, music, carnival and coastline of Haiti. This reinforced a big interest in African coastlines, and I quickly found I had the same passion to get under the skin of places. These are of course often challenging places to work in, but when the local community are proud of the film, it’s so rewarding.  

The aim continues to be to use interviews, narrative and surfing sequences to document emerging local surf cultures, and discover the landscape and culture along the way. I suppose it’s simply a celebration of life, demonstrating how surfing can offer understanding of the changing relationship between cultures and coastlines. I’m very interested in representing the positive stories coming out of communities that are normally only in the media for negative news journalism. Everyone and everywhere has some good in them, and I like to hone in on these elements. I find it fascinating how local surf cultures can inspire positive change and be at the cutting edge of sustainable approaches.

Over the series you have travelled to some pretty exotic places. Was there any one in particular that stood out to you in terms of undiscovered natural beauty?  

It’s hard to match the vibrant rainforests and remote coastlines of Papua New Guinea. It’s such a unique place, arguably one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, with over 850 languages, remote highland communities and abundant natural resources. There are over 600 islands, and a highly convoluted coastline with a lot of exceptional uncrowded reef breaks. And, as bizarre as it sounds, it also has one of the most progressive models of surf tourism management on the planet. I really got inspired to make a film about this during the research. In Papua New Guinea complex traditional laws govern the use of coastal land and fringing reefs where family clans are the custodians of surfing resources. The Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea have translated this into a surf resource management plan that puts the local community at the heart of the development, so revenue goes directly into the area. Instead of a foreign led, top-down approach, they have a bottom-up, community-centred approach that keeps the local community as key decision makers in the management of their own resources. Alongside this, they have done some powerful work in tackling gender inequalities through the so-called ‘pink nose revolution’. Basically, as the surf clubs were getting boards donated, in order to stop the boys from taking ownership of all them in the more patrilineal areas, painting the noses of half of them pink, female surfers are given exclusive ownership and their equal status is made visible. This is a simple but powerful tool to promote women’s participation in surfing. 

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On your travels you encounter many interesting characters from the local communities. How did you find people reacted to you and your project?

I’m super careful in the research to make sure I’m working with local communities who are excited to host me, and are respected within the area for their work and impact. This is the key, and then through association, you are already linked with the good people who enjoy having you on board and are happy to share their stories. So research is key, but also having material to show people in the research so they can see and trust what you do and appreciate the philosophy of light-footed travel and the fact that I am not doing negative news journalism, but focusing in on positive stories that communities are proud to see highlighted. Also, no matter background, language or religion, the common language is surfing, and sharing that experience. I think this is prevalent throughout the action sports community – the way our shared love of action sports unites us if we are open-minded and keen to learn and collaborate.  

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What would you say are the most important insights you have gained from your travels?

I thinking carrying the burden of our carbon footprint, it’s essential that all travel has some kind of local benefit. The obvious things are spreading money into communities through buying local food and supporting locally owned and run accommodation providers. If you’re going to go down the aid work direction, it’s really important to appreciate the context of what you are supporting. Many off-the-beaten track areas that surfers might want to explore may be post conflict or post environmental disaster. They may well have suffered tremendously both economically and socially, and therefore will have attracted lots of NGOs, aid workers and perhaps religious missionaries. You cannot argue against people who come with good will and a passion to make things better. But what you can argue with is encouraging a sense of dependency within a local community. And that’s the big challenge of aid in the modern era. You don't’ want to visit places and encourage people to be dependent and needy because the only visitors they see tend to be aid workers handing out free food, free latrines, free opportunities, free surfboards. This is where supporting education is so important. I think that grass roots surf communities need to develop resource management outlooks where they not only learn how to care for the environment they’re surfing with, but they learn how to build their own surfing equipment. There is always a delicate balance between culture and resources, and it’s crucial to really try to get under the skin of these issues if you want to help make a positive impact.

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It looks like you travel pretty light? What are your "must have" items you bring on your trips?

Actually it’s tough travelling with a longboard, and I normally have a mid-length wetsuit with me as well. So I have to research a lot to make sure I can get that heavy boardbag on the plane. Apart from that, I don’t have too much, but absolutely must have a few note pads for writing notes, and preparing information when talking to camera and interviewing people. Without my note pads I’m lost. They almost take on a spiritual role. I’m fully aligned to having a small crew on every trip, and usually it’s just me and one camera person, and we do all the filming and audio together. But that does mean we have to bring a lot of camera and audio kit. So behind the scenes we have quite a lot of baggage, but we pack light for day trips so we can be resilient and as low key as possible wherever we go.

But another absolute essential is my pair of Cab9 sunnies. All the recent films I’ve made have been in tropical or Mediterranean climates with intense bright light and loads of reflection from the sea. Quality sunglasses are vital. In the past I found good polarised lenses were expensive. You guys make a brilliant product at an affordable price, which is so important. And they look really stylish. Lately I have loved using the Sandimas in tortoise.

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Are there any interesting surf spots you haven’t travelled to that are still on your bucket list?

There are so many places. Angola would be sensational, as would Mozambique, where there is an exciting local scene to meet. But I also keep me eyes on political situations, and if Somalia settles down enough to make it safe (unlikely for a while) that would be a very interesting project, as would Libya, as would Yemen. I think if I didn’t somehow scratch together a career in surfing, I might have become a news journalist specialising in war zones and post-conflict and post environmental disaster places.

Watching the series, it seems like you experienced mostly positive vibes, but did you encounter any particularly challenging, or even scary situations?

After a good run of mistral swell in Mediterranean Algeria around Bejaia and the capital Algeirs, we couldn’t resist heading in-land to experience the Sahara Desert and the ancient city of Ghardaïa. But our momentum was broken as we got caught speeding, the police pulled us over, recognised that we were tourists, and demanded we had a police escort for safety. In the years of turmoil during the brutal civil wars here, foreigners were easy targets for extremists, and paranoia lingers, particularly in the desert. At every border of every region we had to pick up a new police escort. On the way back home, going at about 150 km per hour, we inevitably burst a tyre. But thankfully we had about eight Algerian well trained military police commanders and officers on hand to help change the tyre. That was surreal. In two 12-hour trips in 48 hours we probably met 60 Algerian policemen. Algeria was an incredible adventure. 

And finally, we’re all chomping at the bit to get travelling once travel restrictions lift around the world. Give us your number one destination that we must experience, so we can start booking flights!

I think Morocco is such a magic region, with great surf and a vibrant local scene now. But I believe a really special adventure is to Robertsport in Liberia, a few hours out of the capital Monrovia. There is a campsite right on the beach and a dazzling left point playground, careening through five sand-bottom sections, arguably forming West Africa’s finest set-up. Bushmans and Loco are the biggest two outside points, with thick and wally open faces to carve-up. Cassava and Cotton Trees race for 100 metres long, never cutting back. Fishermans is a super small spinner for retro-board aficionados. Robertsport breaks between May and September against a backdrop of towering 200-year-old cotton silk trees. There is a small and vibrate local scene.