When you think of swell events that have defined the past few decades, what comes to mind? Teahupoo, Code Red, of course for sheer fear-inducing entertainment. Then there was Cloudbreak in 2011, as extreme as it can get, and again in 2012 – these three XXL sessions were, and still are, the epitome of cannoning into the unknown. Waves of magnitude that tested the hardiest of souls and produced mind-melting footage.
And now, a documentary has just dropped that, for the first time, pieces together this trifactor of events, in a full length, behind the scenes roller coaster of a movie. White Rhino hones in on the people who captured and surfed these headline swells, namely, through images and stories relayed by legendary lensman Brian Bielmann. It is a deep dive into those pulses that helped shape the paradigm of modern big wave surfing. It's not remiss to say that these waves are the yard stick by which every other XXL ride at Chopes or Fiji are measured. Those dates and swells through 2011 and 2012 are fully woven into the tapestry of surfing history.
The project's helmed by Brent Storm (fitting name) and has been in the wings for a number of years. It's out now on iTunes and, for anyone who wants to really dip into the headspace of surfers when these swells start to show on charts, this is as close to the action as you're going to get. We caught up with Brent to talk through the process, the highlights and memorable moments from this XXL triple threat.
This is a unique take on big wave riding – it focuses on six of the world's best big surfers and one of surfing's most talented photographers, tell us a bit about those characters and their dynamics?
If you have ever met Brian Bielmann, he is one of the easiest dudes to get a long with. He’s super chill, goes with the flow and everything seems to work out for him in the end - I think that played a big part in the whole dynamic of the film. We got to experience the surfers' true characters because of their relationship with Brian. They really opened up and were incredibly candid during the interviews which you can see throughout the film.
White Rhino focuses on three historic swells, Cloudbreak in July 2011, Teahupoo's Code Red swell and then back to Cloudbreak in June 2012 – what made you want to focus on these events?
We had decided to do interviews behind five of Brian’s favourite photos to share on social media and they just so happened to be focused around those events. I realised when I started editing the shorts that there was a larger story to be told but it wasn’t until we met one of Brian’s good friends, Randy Olson (a marine biologist-turned-filmmaker) that the story really started coming together.
Honestly, I’m amazed and mostly intrigued on how these guys can withstand some of the wipeouts
We met with him for a brief meeting and he gave a bunch of suggestions that really helped design the storyline. On top of that, we had incredible footage come in from some of surfing's finest cinematographers (Tim Bonython, Bruno Lemos, Ryan Thomas, Mike Morrissey, Simon Saffigna, Nick Pollet, Stephen Spaulding) along with amazing photos from Peter ‘Joli’ Wilson and Erik Aeder, that really helped make this film. It was a collaboration from the entire surf community and without them none of this would have been possible.
What we see, as the public, is incredible surfing. True, death defying moments – but the stories of the surfers behind those moments is what makes White Rhino so special. It's rare that level of insight is documented. Were there any parts of the surfers' mentality that shocked you when making this docu?
Honestly, I’m amazed and mostly intrigued on how these guys can withstand some of the wipeouts and what must be going on in their heads during those life and death moments.
I was fortunate enough to ask a few of them how they handle those situations and a lot of preparation goes into what these guys do. One has to respect the level of dedication and the overwhelming sense of knowledge that these guys have when it comes to big wave surfing. I wanted to share with the audience the stories you don’t normally hear about, the trials and tribulations these guys face just getting to these locations let alone the dangers they face in the water.
How easy was it to get people to open up?
Surprisingly easy, I think it had a lot to do with the whole atmosphere of the interviews. It was held in Brian’s studio on the North Shore. The vibe was super chill and most of the interviews happened when the surf wasn’t on so i think they were just killing time.
And, when it's being screened, you're watching the crowd – are there any collective moments of shock/awe? How does that make you feel?
One that stands out is when Bruce wipes out at Teahupoo that seems to get the crowd going but it’s more of a funny moment than shock and awe. Also, when the crowd witnesses the White Rhino wave for the first time. That scene leaves a lot of people amazed.
What was the overall aim of the film?
Overall, I wanted to combine my passion for film with my love for surf and maybe open a few doors along the way. I wanted to make a film that anyone could watch, a film where you can draw the viewer in no matter what part of the movie it is. I wanted to communicate what these guys go through in order to catch these incredible waves while keeping the viewer entertained from beginning to end.
After watching the film, it left me speechless. There's a lot of emotions going on here, fear, redemption, anticipation, anxiety – how difficult was it to keep the message on point?
After the first cut is when Randy Olson one of our producers really came into play. He’s basically a story telling guru who was able to help us mould the story and keep everything on track without losing too much of the original cut.
Out of those three swells, which provided the most drama?
All three swells had their own unique challenges, but the whole story of Code Red and how Brian captured that image of Nathan Fletcher sticks out a lot. Just leading up to Code Red and all the obstacles everyone was challenged with is pretty nuts
What were the highlights of this project, for you?
This whole thing has been quite the trip. I was a wedding cinematographer living on the North Shore and was starting to feel burnt out from shooting weddings all the time. I needed to do something to rejuvenate my creative juices, something that wasn’t going to feel like work. That’s why we called this a passion project.
There was never any backing, this whole film was created from the labour of love and the generosity from some of surfing’s finest. But the entire experience has been highlight after highlight and it just seems to be getting better and better. I was originally stoked that Brian enjoyed the film to begin with. To put 30 plus years of Brian’s photography into a film was more of an honour than a highlight. As for highlights, getting into all these film festivals has been pretty cool. It’s crazy to know that the film is playing in Australia one day and then Paris the next.
What's the feedback been like?
Pretty incredible. We’ve won a handful of awards from some of the festivals and the energy at the screenings is always amazing! It’s so great to share this film with people around the world who are interested and appreciate this sort of thing.
And if people want to watch White Rhino, how do they do so?
The film is available on iTunes as of today, they can also join our mailing list (click here) for updates and how they can score some of Brian Bielmann’s White Rhino Prints.
Watch the film, HERE.