Words from Chris Nelson.
There are still many tracts of coastline across the globe where uncrowded waves break. Around the corner, off the beaten track. Then there are those regions where the surfer’s gaze rarely ventures. The icy fringes; isolated and inhospitable, the dark zones that elude the roving eye of potential adventurers. Unless you are multi-award winning filmmaker Ben Weiland that is.
From his earliest forays — think ‘Cradle of Storms’ and ‘Under An Arctic Sky’ — Ben has been a true searcher. Looking beyond. For him the reward of uncovering un-surfed breaks in pristine lands is as great as paddling into the first feathering peak at an unknown and unnamed spot.
In his latest, highly anticipated film Island X, Ben Weiland and celebrated photographer Mark McInnis assemble a crew of surfers well versed in the art of cold water exploration — Pete Devries, Noah Wegrich, Josh Mulcoy. Following a trail of photographic breadcrumbs they set out on a gruelling mission in search of Alaskan gold and fresh hope in the violent and unpredictable Bering Sea.
Ahead of the European premiere of Island X at London Surf/Film Festival on November 25, we caught up with Dir. Ben Weiland to discuss his must-see project.
“Looking at a map of the region, I'd have never thought there would be decent surf on the island,” explains Ben. “I first heard about it from a scientist who had been stationed there for decades, researching marine mammals. He was a surfer and had seen world class waves there — reefs, points, beach breaks, etc. He was familiar with the surf exploration films I have worked on over the years and reached out to me, enticing me to come see it. But I stayed sceptical until I got there, and when I saw the place first hand I couldn't believe it.”
With his interest piqued, Ben set about pulling together a team that would be as stoked about the frigid potential of the island as he was. “The motivation for the project was more about wanting to travel and create with friends than anything else,” says Ben. “Mark McInnis and I had wanted to work on something together for years, and this was one we both were all in on from the start. And when we put the rest of the team together, we wanted to travel with friends we had known over the years who shared the same love of exploration and didn't mind getting stuck in bad weather for days on end.”
Scoring surf in the frigid north is a tricky and often frustrating mission. Difficult conditions, tricky access, fickle weather, unpredictable and changeable swells all combine to make it a roll of the dice. “I had no idea what we'd find,” Ben admits. “But based off a few photos the scientist had shown me, I had reason to believe it had potential. The problem with finding surf in the Bering Sea is that you are literally right below the wind that is forming swell. It is raw and unpredictable. I never thought it would be possible to get clean conditions. That is what surprised me the most.”
Photographer Mark McInnis became pivotal to the story, having lost his life’s work and possessions in a fire. The trip is partly one of rebirth and rediscovering the stoke. “Everything that Mark went through in the story of the film happened after we had started working on the project,” explains Ben. “Initially as the director I saw his circumstances only as setbacks.
But as we got deeper into the challenges of the project—including Covid, and the only airlines that serviced the island going out of business—I thought the story of what was going on around the project might be the most significant aspect.”
For Ben, Island X has been something of a labour of love. It has been a long process bringing the film to the big screen – and there have been many difficulties to navigate around along the road. But for Ben the upsides have made the whole journey worthwhile. “It's been working with friends, taking big risks together to see what might come of it,” he says.
“The biggest highlight to me was discovering that a local native Alaskan on the island had been surfing there for over a decade, just him and his partner. We meet them and included the story in the film. I thought we were so far from any shores that surfers had been to, and finding this out was surprising and incredible.”
With so many isolated spots explored and so many amazing waves discovered, I wonder if Ben thinks he’ll ever lose this passion for exploring the frigid fringes of the surfing map? “I can't stop thinking of all the unexpected places that might hold pristine waves,” Ben explains. “I wonder why it grips me so much, and still haven't found the answer. But I hope I don't lose my love of it. For me one of the most satisfying aspects of creativity is exploring the unknown.”
The 11th Edition London Surf / Film Festival is hosted November 25 – December 2, across the capital, bringing to the UK the very best surf cinema from across the globe — premieres, award winning features, independent films, Q+A’s, icons and more. Book tickets, here