In 1956, 35-year-old Dorian Paskowitz seemingly had it all. A Stanford-educated medical doctor, and President of the American Medical Association for the State of Hawaii, "Doc" Paskowitz was being groomed for a run for governor. He was married, the father of two young girls, and had a mortgage and a maid, but far from being happy, Doc Paskowitz was riddled with anxiety, self-doubt, sexual inhibition and survivor's guilt. Paskowitz felt stifled in his marriage and guilty for having lived comfortably in the United States while fellow Jews were being exterminated in the Holocaust.
Doc realized that his life lacked meaning, and that only a radical break from the status quo could give him a chance for happiness. Within a matter of months, he divorced his wife, abandoned his daughters, resigned his post at the AMA, closed his practice, and moved to Israel. Doc spent a year there immersing himself in his faith, and conquering his anxiety and self-doubt through a regime of healthy eating, surfing, and uninhibited sex. In fact, Doc found so much joy in surfing and sex he set out to follow the waves and women wherever he could find them, eventually landing in California where he met Juliette with whom he decided to embark on the next phase of his life plan.
Juliette moved into Doc's Studebaker, and they were married shortly thereafter. Between 1959 and 1974, Juliette was continuously nursing babies. Juliette bore Doc eight sons and a daughter. As the children came along, the Studebaker was replaced by a succession of 24-foot campers. Two adults and nine children living in one 24-foot camper, all strictly adhering to Doc's theories about health, diet, antimaterialism, exercise, and right thinking.
Doc raised his children to be great surfers, and great surfers they became, winning renown within the surfing community and garnering national media attention as "the First Family of Surfing." The Paskowitz children didn't go to school, nor were they home schooled in any conventional sense. What exposure they got to traditional knowledge was limited to the books they could borrow from libraries in communities they passed through.
Doc abhorred materialism. When he inherited $40,000, he refused it because he was afraid it would change him. When the family's bankroll was reduced to just one dime, he reveled in the adventure of it. Paskowitz did take the odd job here and there as an itenerit doctor, but he quickly moved on as soon as he had enough cash to get by, always afraid of becoming too comfortable.
When the Paskowitz family was living out Doc's dream in that 24-foot camper, things were wonderful, and if Doc could have stopped time there, he would have, but time doesn't stop, and eventually the Paskowitz children were ready to strike out on their own.
As the oldest son David puts it at the beginning of the film "When we had nothing, we were in complete cultist bliss. When we started to want something, that's when it hit the fan." Dorian never prepared his children to enter the real world and he fought tooth and nail to keep them together for as long as he could, even creating a family business, a surf camp, as leverage to hold them together, but eventually all of them finally moved on.
When the children did finally begin leaving, they were shocked to learn how unprepared for life in the ordinary world they really were. Dorian and Juliette's third son Abraham wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and become a doctor, but resigned himself to being a chef when a GED teacher told him he'd need nine years of study just to be ready to enter college. Other Paskowitz children have found work in surfing, music, art, and film. Navah, the sole daughter, is a stay-at-home mom to two children at the time the documentary was filmed (four by the time the commentary was recorded). Adam, the sixth son, plans to raise his children just as he was raised on the waves and out of school. Dorian and Juliette, at the time the documentary was filmed, were living in Hawaii. Dorian still surfs everyday.
When Doug Pray began shooting Surfwise much of the family was estranged from one another. Not only did many of the children feel anger towards their father, but they'd also suffered falling outs with one another especially over revenue from the surf camp. The filming of Surfwise turned out to be cathartic experience for the children. Late in the film all of the children and Dorian and Juliette reunite for the first time in more than a decade. The scene is touching, but incomplete. There's no apparent reunion between Dorian and his children from his prior marriage.
Doug Pray has done a phenomenal job of making a cogent 93-minute documentary about the Paskowitz family. There's fifty years worth of material, eleven primary participants, and far more friends and extended family members here, all with unique perspectives on the Paskowitz family story. Though Surfwise necessarily feels selective in how it presents that story, it doesn't ring false. Sure, the documentary was the catalyst for the family reuniting, allowing Pray a somewhat happy third act to pull the documentary back from the downer of its second, but Pray couldn't have achieved this reconciliation if the family members didn't want it too.
The one issue I wish Pray had explored in more depth was Doc's survivor's guilt. How had Doc, who was of age during WW II, avoided the war, and why?
Optional subtitles are available in Spanish only.
The theatrical trailer for Surfwise is not included. Trailers for four other Magnolia Pictures releases and a commercial for HDNet run on disc startup but are not accessible from the extras menu.