19 July, 2016 19 July, 2016

Freedom Riders: A Different Kind Of Stoke

From opium farmers in Myanmar to police shootings in America, Ozzy surfer and filmmaker, Matthew Davis, tells stories from around the world. But it’s rare that his passion for surfing and filmmaking come together – until he found Cape Town’s surf therapy programme Waves For Change, hopped a flight to SA and started rolling…

Matthew grew up surfing on the coast of south Australia. He has always been involved in surfing and spent a couple of years running the O’Neill Cold Water Classic webcasts and a few other events before becoming the ABC Producer/Cameraman on the current affairs documentary program, ‘Foreign Correspondent’.

Matthew Davis – Ozzy filmmaker, surfer and the producer/cameraman behind 'Freedom Riders'. A documentary on SA surf therapy programme, Waves For Change.

Matthew Davis – Ozzy filmmaker, surfer and the producer/cameraman behind ‘Freedom Riders’. A documentary on SA surf therapy programme, Waves For Change. Muizenberg, Cape Town.

Matthew recently spent two and a half weeks in South Africa filming the documentary ‘Freedom Riders’ – a story, the many many stories, about CT based surf therapy programme, Waves For Change (W4C). “I still think Tim [W4C founder] didn’t think we would really come all the way from Sydney to Muizenberg,” Matthew laughs. “But Australian’s loves surfing… of course we were coming!”

Matthew has spent a lot time making documentaries in south Sudan and this time was adamant on finding an uplifting story. We caught up with Matt from down under to find out more about the making-of ‘Freedom Riders’ and the future of South African surfing. Despite the many social and political challenges facing South Africa and the dark emotional journeys facing many of our young township surfers – this is an uplifting story. A story about a different kind of stoke, perhaps a stoke of the purest kind…

Q & A with Matthew Davis – Producer/Cameraman of ‘Freedom Riders’

Zigzag: The film delves deep into a lot of personal, socio-economic issues faced by many of the young Waves 4 Change chargers. What was the biggest challenge for you during the making of this film? Was it more physical, emotional or mental?

Matt: A big part of our job is getting deep into the lives of our characters and that often comes with quite emotional hurdles. It is part of the job and it is important to be true to these personal stories. As you will see in the film – our main character Noncedo has been in a dark place on multiple occasions. But what we want to do is bring the viewer along her journey and see that through the programme and her new love of surfing, Noncedo was able to move on and get back on her feet – on land and in the water. That is what any surfer watching this film should see and feel –  stoke for her.

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Noncedo – one of Waves For Change’ many female surfers from the township, Cape Town.

There are a lot of great, humbling surf moments in this film. What was the most memorable experience or memorable person you encountered on the making of the film?

To be honest everyone involved in the programme was exceptional. We were welcomed with open arms from the project. Apish and the coaches have all come up through the program and through their own experiences of township life, are representing for all the young kids learning to surf. They are all so engaged in the program. Beyond Waves For Change  – the local scene helped us immensely – Michelsen, Ryan Janssens, and others like Glen Thompson, Chris Mason and of course Tim Conibear. Everyone just chipped in. Trust me if all my stories were like this my job would be sweet!


Apish Tshetsha, W4C surf coaches and groms warm up with some games. Muizenberg, Cape Town.

When you’re not travelling the world with your camera on your hip – you’re also frothing surfer. Where do you surf mostly and what was it like surfing in SA?

Yeah for sure. I currently live in Maroubra on the eastern beaches of Sydney. It is an amazing spot, the crowd equally so. I get my modest share of waves there, but surfing around the Cape reminded me of my days growing up surfing the south Australian coastline. The waves are solid, the water is cold, the sharks are bigger than your car and the locals are warm. There were a few mornings spent drawing high lines to avoid the kelp (that felt more like Tasmania), but better than a crowded line up. There are so many spots, but keeping busy with the film, I didn’t get to see enough of it. I will be back. (Oh and P.S – big thanks to the only Aussie guy living near Muizenberg who has the 12 ft blue McTavish longboard he let me ride on loan – it helped with the filming immensely!)

Sometimes all you need is just a little perspective. Waves For Change surfers wait for the next set. Cape Town.

Sometimes all you need is just a little perspective. Waves For Change surfers wait for the next set. Cape Town.

For you, what would be the ultimate outcome or impact that this film has in the world? Heaps of funding? A change in perspective? More awareness?

We broadcast the programme nationally in Australia last week on the ABC and hundreds of thousands enjoyed the story – I mean surfing is a common bond and I think sometimes we can get bogged down in current affairs that focus primarily on heavy issues. That is not to say the stuff we were dealing with wasn’t heavy. But to quote Ozzy muso, Paul Kelly, ‘from little things big things grow’ and this remarkable surf programme is having an impact on lots of young people. That is it – positive change.

I don’t expect Waves For Change to cure the disadvantages the townships face but for sure they are having a crack and the least we can do as story tellers is spread that message so that Tim, Apish, Noncedo, Likho and the rest of the crew can get the exposure they need and ultimately the financial support a programme like this requires to get it done.

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Apish Tshetsha, local Waves For Change surf coach. Cape Town.

The world of surfing, particularly competitive surfing, is often criticized for being elitist, exclusive, sexist – among other negative words. What lesson can the surf world take from the work of organizations like Waves For Change?

[Laughs] Absolutely. Living in Sydney I am surrounded by surf hype. It is a lot of fun. But it’s not everything. You get down to Waves For Change and you realize that beyond the pro thing, surfing is just about people catching a wave, throwing a few turns if they’re lucky, and pulling into the shorebreak with a smile on their dial. We really saw this with the W4C kids and it was a good reality check. I mean, who didn’t love seeing Mick win J-Bay? But for every turn he nailed on that quad channel swallow tail number, I saw a kid on a beat up foamy catch a wave and do a backflip. It’s hard to say who was more stoked.

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Likho stands for stoke! Muizenberg, Cape Town.

After the making of Freedom Riders you must have had some time to reflect on the diverse political and social experiences of surfing you had in the country. Bearing that in mind, what are your thoughts on the future of surfing in South Africa – where are we headed?

I follow surfing and to be honest so many surfers down under want to see Jordy absolutely smash it. But for whatever reason that isn’t always going to  go according to plan. Seeing the style of Mfeb [Michael February] and other crew hustling on the WQS… ZAF is always in the mix. But the pro focus aside, what we saw in Muizenberg with all the kids from the townships was one of the coolest surf experiences of my life. I have surfed Hawaii, Indo, Fiji, Oz etc… but the stoke the township kids have on a few fat rollers, that is the future of South African surfing. Pure stoke!

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Waves For Change groms warm up in the cold, no skaam. Muizenberg, Cape Town.

Everyone always wants to do a little more, to make a difference, but often they don’t know how. What more can surfers do to better the sport / escape / therapy / lifestyle we call surfing to make it more inclusive in our society?

I hope films like Freedom Riders can be part of just opening surfers to a different kind of stoke. It is not a high performance film, it is a story about a remarkable project and some of the people in it who have had their lives changed by surfing. As the world gets more crowded and the line ups follow suit, to see young black and coloured kids tearing up the waves on beaches they couldn’t even swim at 30 years ago – mate that is real. As the township kids say “Bannanas” (shakas!).


Waves For Change surfers bring it in before paddling out. Don’t lose sight of them rainbows. Muizenberg, Cape Town.

For more info on Waves For Change and how you can get involved visit their website HERE. Check out Waves For Change on Facebook HERE.

*Interview edited for brevity / clarity.

**Images © Greg Nelson

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