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Veteran surf movie maker Jack McCoy premiered his latest film, Free As A Dog – A True Dog’s Tale, at Sydney’s State Theatre on January 2, 2006 to kick off the fifth annual Billabong Jack McCoy Surf Film Festival. Starring champion Australian surfer Joel Parkinson, it’s possibly not McCoy’s best film, but it is probably his funniest, reports Bruce Andrews.

As surf movies go, Free As A Dog, starring champion Gold Coast surfer Joel Parkinson, is a stand-out comedy. While the packed audience at the premiere expected to see great surfing on great waves at great locations - the magic formula that anyone who knows his audience as well as McCoy does isn’t going to deny them - they probably didn’t expect to laugh so much. You see, in a departure for McCoy, who usually narrates his own films, Free As A Dog is ‘narrated’ by Joel’s pure-bred boxer dog Trey.

WC Fields once cautioned, “Never work with children or animals”, but McCoy and Parkinson don’t seem to have any regrets. When Trey came on stage with his master at the premiere, and was interviewed by Master of Ceremonies Mark Occhilupo, himself a champion surfer who has a comic role in the film, he stole the show. Trey’s responses, ventriloquised from off-stage, had the audience in stitches both then and during the movie as his narrative role within it developed.

"none of these champion surfers take themselves too seriously"

While the ‘A’ story - often the only story - in any surf movie is the quest for waves, Joel Parkinson (‘Parko’) and his ‘grommet’ (kid surfer) co-stars, Ellis Ericson and James Wood, willingly play to a contrived and somewhat traditional ‘B’ story about a competitive juvenile love-interest; beach-babe Ashley Cheadle. This signals that none of these champion surfers take themselves too seriously.

Early in the movie Parko’s development as a surfer is contextualized through a potted history of the development of his home town of Coolangatta on the Gold Coast since the late 1940s – a neat reminder of paradise lost. Then Trey the dog provides a comic snap-shot of young Joel growing up in an intensely spirited surfing town, amid many talented and inspiring surfers.

This leads to the theme of the film - the powerful and important role within surfing of mentoring. This is a theme that is occasionally alluded to in surf films but is rarely explored; recent exceptions are Stacy Peralta’s surf and skateboard documentary ‘Dogtown and Z Boys’ (2001) and his ‘Riding Giants’ (2004). Parko now believes in assisting other young surfers to better their performance and competition chances, although, at twenty four, he is not that much older than Ericson and Wood who feature throughout the film with him as they travel Australia’s east coast, then to remote north west Western Australia and to Argentina.

Hawaiian-born McCoy has made about twenty five surf movies since ‘Tubular Swells’ (1975), his first film, with friend Dick Hoole, which McCoy still cites as his personal favourite. Many of his fans might choose the extraordinary ‘To’ – Day of Days’ (2001), featuring remarkable Hawaiian big wave rider Laird Hamilton, or the more recent ‘Blue Horizon’ (2004), which contrasts the surfing lifestyles of two-time world champion Andy Irons and free-surfer Dave Rastovich.

While McCoy has chronicled the evolution of modern surfing during the last three decades, he is not just a film maker but a showman. He personally attends and presents each screening of the touring film festival, here and overseas. In 2004 McCoy and his team showed ‘Blue Horizon’ to 55,000 people at 151 screenings at 73 venues in 10 countries. That’s showmanship.

McCoy also hosts a surf short film competition, Surfshorts, now in its third year, sponsored by Panasonic. The winning entry collects $10,000 cash, a new Panasonic digital video camera and is screened with the festival. Victorian Tony Mason won the 2005 competition with his film ‘131.9’ (the cost per litre of petrol to get to the beach from his home an hour and a quarter drive away).

"entertaining and fun"

Although packed with wave-charging action, ‘Free As A Dog’ is not just for surfers. This film is entertaining and fun, and fans that spark of recognition of what it’s like to be a young talented surfer and, well, free as a dog.

The Billabong Jack McCoy Surf Film Festival 2006 tours nationally until February 19th then heads overseas for screenings in ten countries. Details on http://www.jackmccoy.com

Published January 19, 2006

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