Elizabeth Pepin Silva is a legend in many ways. Not only is she a surfer who makes awesome film documentaries and photographer, she’s an old school punk rocker, which I love. Cause guess what? I am too, kind of.
I first met Elizabeth at an art show in Pacific Beach, California but I had seen her work many times before that. I got to really know Elizabeth at the first annual Institute for Women Surfers back in 2014. Since then we’ve kept in touch and I follow her projects and always want to know what she’s up to.
Why are you drawn to writing feature articles and documentary filmmaking?
I’ve always been very curious about other people and places, which might stem from the fact that I lived in Europe for a few years as a young child, which made me realize early on that the world was a very diverse and interesting place. As a teenager, I was drawn to writing and using visuals to tell stories, so becoming a journalist was a great way to turn doing something I loved into an actual career. I also tend to be introverted and spend a lot of time by myself, so making films and writing stories is a great way to force me out of my shell and learn about things that I otherwise would never know about. Working on a new story or film is like taking an intense college course. I have to research and absorb as much as I can about a subject so that I can then help my readers or viewers understand and get excited about what I’m writing or making a film about.
Are you still shooting film? Have you purchased a digital camera yet?
I like shooting on all different kinds of still and moving image cameras. I utilize both film and digital files to create. I have no problem mixing it up when it comes to formats!
I know you were into the Riot Grrrl movement. Do you feel that has translated into your contributions to women’s surfing? And how so?
Ah, that’s a myth that has somehow gotten out there which is not true. I believed in what the Riot Grrrrl movement was doing and liked some of the music and politics, but I wouldn’t say I was actually part of the movement. I’m kinda like the Forest Gump of the ’80s and ’90s music scene. I happened to be at a lot of legendary concerts just simply because I loved and continue to love music so much. I’m just not a person who joins moments of any kind, even when I support them. I just attended some of the events and concerts.
I was into punk rock at an early age — I saw the Sex Pistols on TV in the late 1970s and was hooked. I had my own punk and new wave radio show on the local college radio station at 16 and promoted my first punk show — the Dead Kennedys — at the age of 17. It was at my sister’s high school (my school said no way!) and we lied to the administration, telling them we wanted to hold “new wave day” and have a new wave band called the Pink Twinkies play a high school dance. It really was the DKs and all hell broke lose when they started playing and Jello Biafra dove off the stage into a crowd of jocks. We almost got suspended from school but since the concert was a fundraiser for my sister’s school’s exchange student program, and raised more money than any other fundraiser that year, it was hard for them to be too mad.
In college I turned my interest into paid jobs, which included being the Day Manager and historian of the Fillmore Auditorium, publishing a music fanzine, and working at record stores, which eventually led me to own my own store in 1991. I also was paid by Japanese and UK record stores to drive around the country buying rare used records for them. I found out that during one of my buying trips up to Washington State that the International Pop Underground Convention in Olympia, WA was going to take place, so I bought a pass and arranged my buying trip around the convention, bringing my friend Garri from the UK along for the ride. The first night featured “Girl Night,” a concert that turned out to be a historic event as it pretty much solidified the riot grrrl movement. It was pretty amazing to be at such a fantastic woman power evening, but I just happened to be there – it wasn’t the reason I was there!
How much planning goes into making a film? Where do you start? Do you start with a written story or more of an idea?
I first get an idea for making a film, then do a bunch of research to see if anyone else has done anything similar, and also identify the key character or characters. I contact them to make sure they want to participate and then do pre-interviews, either in person or via email. Once I have the pre-interviews finished I read them over and decide the direction I think the film should take. I’m hyper-organized and do a lot of planning before my shoots – but at the same time what I love most about documentary filmmaking is that you can plan all you want but you never really know what is going to happen during a shoot. For example, when Sally Lundburg and I were editing “One Winter Story,” the documentary we did about big-wave surf pioneer Sarah Gerhardt, she got pregnant and stopped surfing Maverick’s for a while. We decided that it would be a great way to end the film — get some footage of her standing on the beach at Mavs when it was breaking, looking out at the water. By this time Sally was living in Hawaii again (which is where she is from) so I met Sarah at Maverick’s to get the footage. We had not filmed there in over a year. Sarah and I were in the parking lot talking about where to film when a woman pulled up in a car with a Mavs gun surfboard on the roof. Sarah and I looked at each other — who the heck was this woman with a big wave board? At that time Sarah was the only woman who had successfully surfed a wave at Maverick’s. The woman gets out and Sarah and I go over to say hi. It’s Jenny Useldinger, fresh off a plane from Oahu, determined that she is going to catch a wave at Maverick’s that day. It was incredible. Here I was at Maverick’s with Sarah for the first time in over a year and the random day we picked to go film was the day that another woman who is determined to catch a wave at Maverick’s just happens to show up! I filmed Sarah and Jenny talking on the beach, with Sarah showing Jenny were best to paddle out, and off she went to make history as the second woman to successfully ride a wave at Maverick’s . I never could have predicted that in a million years. It totally changed the ending of our film.
During the filming of La Maestra, you said that the film took on it’s own meaning. Can you explain what happened while filming that movie?
I can’t really recall saying that La Maestra took on its own meaning, but again, the film turned out differently than the way Paul Ferraris, my film partner, and I envisioned the film. It became more of a “day in the life” of both Mayra — the star of the film — and of the little village where she lives, rather than a more hard hitting look at what it was like to be the first woman in her community to surf and also what it was like to be in a town that was being altered by outside forces. Both topics are covered in our film, but they are more subtle because that is how Mayra chose to talk about it. It’s her story and we felt strongly that the film should reflect how she wanted it told. All filmmakers have an agenda – how can you not — by making the choice of what and who to film, you have set an agenda. However, I feel strongly that you do not get in the way of your subject’s telling of their own story, you are merely the vessel through which their story is being told.
You said that you’re working on a documentary about Linda Benson. Can you give us some insights as to what inspired you to make this film?
Actually, it’s a film about Linda Benson and Joyce Hoffman, and their rivalry during the 1960s. It was inspired by a photograph I took in 1997 or ’98 at on of the first Roxy contests at Old Man’s in San Onofre. Roxy invited a bunch of woman surf legends to the contest, and I was there covering the story for Wahine Magazine. I took a photo of Linda and Joyce with their arms around each other, and I later learned it was the first time they had seen each other in years, and that day kicked off their friendship. Before that they had been fierce rivals at the contests and barely spoke to each other. I became intrigued by this rivalry and how it corresponded with the rise and dissemination of the “California Surfer Girl” myth, which both women embodied at the time. When we finished “La Maestra,” Paul and I decided we wanted to make another surf documentary together and I brought up my photo and interest in Linda and Joyce’s story. He loved the idea so I contacted both women and we were thrilled when they said yes. We have another year before we are finished. These films take a lot of time! The biggest issue we’re now facing is where to get the money to pay for all the archival footage we need to tell the story. We’ll probably have a fundraiser this fall.
I’ve read that you have a ton of ideas for films and projects, without giving away your ideas, can you give some insights as to where you would like to go with your projects? Do you see yourself doing environmental films, documentaries about inspiring female surfers or maybe going in a new direction?
I like to joke that I’ll be on my death bed begging for more time so I can finish another project. I have far more ideas than I have time and now that I’m in my 50s I’m realizing I’m only going to get to make a few more feature length docs before I leave the planet, which is sobering indeed. So I’m prioritizing what projects I want to do most, and what ones I have the best chance of finding a little money to fund them. All of them intersect history, a sense of place, and the interesting people who lived the story. Most have a connection to water or music or women, but not all of them.
What’s some advice you can offer for someone wanting to get started with documentary filmmaking?
Just pick up a camera and do it! Don’t be afraid to try — we need more women filmmakers telling stories. In 1994 when I saw more and more women start surfing but the surf magazines weren’t reflecting the change in the lineup I didn’t just bitch about it, I picked up my still cameras and started photographing women surfers I met on the beach. I had no idea what I was doing but I taught myself through trial and error – first by doing portraits on land, and then finding a water camera and figuring out how to shoot from the water. It was really hard, especially since I was shooting only on film (no digital back then!) and mistakes were expensive lessons, but I learned and soon began shooting for women surf magazines and having a gallery and museum shows of my work.
Also, find a mentor. I learned to make films while on the job. I have a degree in journalism but it’s print journalism. I did very little film and video storytelling until I got hired at KQED, the public television station where I worked on my first documentary, which was when on the Fillmore neighborhood in San Francisco. I was really lucky that I had an amazing boss and mentor, Peter Stein. He and another filmmaker named Joan Saffa taught me everything I know about how to make a documentary film. I thank them both for their guidance and generosity — and patience!
Lastly, know that it is very challenging to make a living at filmmaking and photography. I struggle all the time and sometimes get frustrated that I work so hard and have very little financially to show for it. But at the same time, I wake up every morning really excited to start working. I love my job and can’t believe I get paid to do the work that I do. I am not rich but my life sure is. I couldn’t hope for anything better.
Visit Elizabeth’s website to learn more: http://otwfront.net/