As a psychological drama, surfing as storytelling, Pro Land is still engrossing, more than twenty years later.
Derek Hynd’s movie Pro Land follows the infamous 1999 world tour battle fought between, primarily, Danny Wills, Mick Campbell and Kelly Slater.
You remember the story.
Baby-faced Danny and fiery Mick as tour frontrunners, seemingly destined to bring a world title back to Australia. Only for Slater to swoop in on finals day at Pipe and take crown number six.
One of the closer, grittier championship runs of the modern era. All documented by Hynd on a handheld camera, well before the days of webcast. The independently produced documentary was uploaded to YouTube a couple of years back with Hynd’s blessing.
Pro Land wasn’t the first behind-the-scenes look at the tour grind. Nor was it necessarily the best (see: Scream in Blue). Watching through a contemporary lense the surfing has dated.
The production quality is poor. There’s cringey, borderline voyueristic T&A smattered throughout.
But as a psychological drama, surfing as storytelling, Pro Land is still top notch. Engrossing, more than twenty years later.
The narrative is simple.
Follow the top five surfers (Danny, Mick, Kelly, Beschen, and Occ) as they progress through the tour. Stick a camera in their face at opportune times. Document the story however it plays out.
The film opens in Japan, after the Australian leg, and is a slow burn at first. There’s scrappy surfing in meagre waves. A reminder of the bad old days of world tour conditions. Short interviews with key players. An updated scorecard at the end of every contest. Otherwise, very little exposition. More Sarge’s Surfing Scrapbook than Scream in Blue.
But form soon emerges.
As we move from comp to comp, Hynd the auteur begins to inject himself, and the storyline unfurls.
Just as Erik Logan and Pat O’Connell identified some twenty years later, it’s in the top five where the bone’s marrow lies. What a spread of characters Hynd had to work with.
The re-emergent Occy, warming up for his eventual title run the year following. His small-wave game in particular is still incredible to watch.
Slater, evergreen, at one of his many peaks.
Beschen, the sage cynic, in whom Hynd surely sees the most of himself. Incredibly precise surfing, to the point of austerity (see: economy of movement). But also honest, cutting commentary both on his own performance and that of his competitors.
Willsy and Campbo, the best friends. The heart and soul of the story. Two ocker Aussies, LMB tragics, ready to take back the crown for Australia. Just stinging for a fight, whether with each other or any other cunt willing.
As Hynd continues with his peppering of the subjects as they move from J-Bay, to Europe, to the US, to Brazil, nuggets of insight emerge. The interplay between best mates Wills and Campbell is absorbing. Willsy, the inordinately blessed talent that struggles with the number one target on his back. Campbell, the competitive animal who delights as the underdog.
Then there’s Slater, the tritagonist, emerging from the shadows like some Dionysian villain to steal the show in the final act.
This was DIY Reality TV. But it was raw. Honest. The human condition played out on a tinny VHS screen.
Or at least it felt like it when viewed after a couple of Saturday afternoon tins.
The late David Forster Wallace said world-class athletes are profundity in motion: “To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves. So we want to know them. We want to get intimate with that profundity. We want to get inside them. We want the Story.”
So it goes with any type of sports journalism. Hynd got the Story. It ain’t hard.
That a lone operator with nothing more than a handycam and a nose for drama can create a compelling documentary shouldn’t be surprising.
Pro Land treats its subject matter with the respect, earnestness, and subtle piss-take it deserves. It understands the product for what it is, and doesn’t try to make it anything more.
Competitive surfing is like war. Long periods of boredom punctuated by short periods of excitement. It’s never going to be mainstream viewing, because it isn’t a mainstream product, no matter how you try to package it. It requires investment from both the audience and the director.
But the hard work will pay off if you’re patient enough. Give ‘em enough rope and they’ll hang themselves, as the saying goes.
Pro Land takes us behind the veil.
It’s in the top five where the bone’s marrow lies, sure. But it doesn’t mean you should chuck away the rest. Just look at ‘99. The world title was decided on finals day, but we also got to see tour veteran Jake Paterson beat wildcard Bruce Irons in one of the most nail biting finals in Pipe’s history.
There’s storylines everywhere, if you let them breathe.
Compare it then to the overproduced, heavy handed narratives constantly being pumped out by the multimillion-dollar WSL ‘media house.’ Top Five. Ultimate Surfer. By artificially manufacturing drama, the WSL is robbing itself of the very magic it wants to create.
Disrespecting and disservicing the sport it is so desperately trying to monetise.
Any fool with a handycam can see it.
But hey, maybe Trestles will prove me wrong.