Fresh off a win at the first-ever elite women's contest at Lower Trestles, Stephanie Gilmore (AUS) is back in the Title Race, looking for a her sixth World Crown. The Aussie powerhouse has long been known as a force of nature, making headlines since she was a grom. A new documentary, Stephanie in the Water, captures key moments from her formidable career and compresses them into a neat package.
"I directed around things as they unfolded in Stephanie's life," said Director Ava Warbrick, who filmed Gilmore over several ASP World Championship Tour (WCT) seasons. As a bi-continental filmmaker, friend of Gilmore's, and part of a surf industry family, Warbrick was uniquely positioned to capture Gilmore's life on Tour -- in and out of the spotlight.
Stephanie in the Water features plenty of barrels but departs from typical surf flicks with a focus on Gilmore's journey more than her wave count. Underscoring this distinction are the film's shots of Gilmore in quieter, reflective moments. In one scene, she's discussing the 2011 attack that kept her out of the water for two months; in another, she's in a corner, quiet and alone, while other WCT women buzz around her.
"We have some surf sequences that show Stephanie's talent," said Warbrick, "but I wanted to make a movie that showed her character and revealed what it's like to be her: Growing up in competition, growing up on the world stage. I wanted it to be something that would be more in the genre of documentary than surf action. There's plenty of that out there."
Warbrick's film finds further distinction in its ability to move seamlessly between Gilmore's public high notes and denouements, for a raw feel throughout. There's Gilmore's return to form after her attack, and the night she relinquished her World Title to Carissa Moore. But then the camera stays with her as she slips away from a red carpet, into the night.
Embracing the public and private were part of Warbrick's learning curve about being a pro surfer. "It seems like there is that element -- living a really exciting life, where you get to travel nonstop, and go to these beautiful locations," she said. "It is a very unique and special lifestyle. But it can be difficult to maintain that energy and movement, and not have a base and all that regular, grounded life. Your life is being on Tour."
The film's other key element is its very status as a surf movie about a female champion, created by a female director. Either would be unique. Together they're a novelty.
"Those questions abound," said Warbick. "Every interview you read with a female athlete [deals with gender]. I wanted to settle it delicately, it wasn't the thing that I wanted to dwell on in this context. I wanted it to be an underlying thread, but not the focus.
"There are moments. It comes up in the very first sequence with an interview with Stephanie from years ago on Australian TV where they're asking about what is it like to be a woman compared to the blokes. And what you see is her reaction, like, 'I'll answer the question, but this isn't what I'm about it, or what defines me.' I tried to handle that material as gracefully as possible."
Grace was important for the director -- on screen and off. Having spent several years shooting and in post-production, Warbrick ultimately learned from her subject: "[Most of all] I learned to adapt and be flexible and work with many personalities. Obviously Stephanie is a presence -- she is calm and poised. It was nice to take cues from that."