director Adam Pesce
The world’s exotica isn’t what it was in the 20th century. Though the Earth isn’t physically any smaller, the popularity of air travel and far away destinations are much more trafficked by more and more people. And with modern media, especially the internet, the places that are truly far away or tucked away or isolated are fewer and fewer than ever.
Papua New Guinea though is certainly one of the last exotic places. Though part of a huge island just north of Australia, it remained notorious for isolated cultural practice of cannibalism into the mid-20th century. But that is more the outsider’s understanding of such a place. It’s a tropical land in which some of the people in isolated villages live lives not terribly far from those of people of their region from centuries past, milling the interior of palm trees for one of their primary foodstuffs or fishing or chewing the betel nuts of those trees.
What is unusual is the sudden import of sport surfing, which broke there only a generation before. The film Splinters explores the culture and contest in the village of Vanimo, where rival surf clubs vie to send a champion to Australia to surf competitively and put Papua New Guinea on the international surfing map.
The title refers to the slang term for the surfboards that the locals cut from the palm trees, but it may also refer to the sniping, bickering, and typical social drama that infects the six months leading to the tournament and ultimately leads to one of the contestants in jail.
The film follows not only the male surfers but the female surfers and exposes some inherent cruelties in the PNG patriarchy. Not only are women meant to be subservient to men but they can be legally beaten by their husbands who buy them from their families. The glimpse into this village’s life building to the competition exposes more about the culture of the community than mere surfing.
The final images of the winners landing in a modern airport and seeing shops and things that they had only read about, never seen in real life, really underscores the distance that this village life has from the rest of the contemporary world. PNG is an exotic place and the people are outside of much of modern life. It’s a pretty fascinating glimpse into this world.