‘Resurface’ Presents Surfing as a Form of Therapy for PTSD

From the makers of the award-winning short film ‘Slomo’ comes an issue-driven sports doc.

According to one of the former marines featured in Joshua Izenberg and Wynn Padula’s Resurface, 22 military veterans commit suicide every 24 hours. This is a brief increase to the data recorded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2016, which found that an average of 20 veterans take their own lives daily. Additionally, a report published by RAND found that 20% of veterans who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts either suffered from PTSD, TBI, depression, or suicidal thoughts. This number is higher than the 15% of subjects who experienced the same symptoms following the Vietnam war. The filmmakers state that only 40% of veterans suffering from PTSD seek treatment. It’s a serious issue, one for which they hope to raise awareness.

The decline of mental health in association with war isn’t new information, and traditional treatments and coping mechanisms have been well-documented. Resurface instead focuses on an alternative method that’s proven to be an effective healer in its own right: surfing.

The film follows Operation Surf, a program founded by California native Van Curaza with the sole purpose of saving veterans through riding waves. After leaving the military himself, he slipped into a spiral of addiction while readjusting to society, but learning to surf enabled him to overcome his personal demons and do some good for others. Having experienced the healing power of the ocean first-hand, he now works to help other soldiers find comfort from the waves.

Curaza’s organization found that surfing causes a “decrease in PTSD symptoms by 36%, a decrease in depression by 47%, and an increase in self-efficacy by 68%.” One thing we learn from the brief time we spend with the film’s group of subjects is that surfing has indeed saved their lives. “If someone is thinking about the waves tomorrow, they’re not going to kill themselves today,” one of them notes. Suicide is a prevalent topic throughout, but the core of the story is how Operation Surf has pulled people back from the edge.

There’s a telling scene in the documentary where one of the veterans gives a talk discussing how military service teaches soldiers to get on with the job at hand and bury their emotions. The common theme appears to be that anxieties are brought on through not communicating feelings, as opening up is considered to be a weakness in a line of work that requires killing. This ultimately makes the U.S. military seem inhumane and detrimental to a person’s emotional well-being, which is only one side of a debate. Some viewers are bound to vehemently disagree with this idea, but there’s no denying that the war zone has negatively affected the soldiers present here.

Still, by not featuring counteractive commentators, the film only presents one side of a multifaceted argument. The filmmakers objectively sit back and let the soldiers tell their stories, but there are times where viewers will struggle to sympathize. For instance, one notable scene features the film’s central subject, Bobby Lane, confessing to killing children. This presents a moral dilemma; while he evidently feels insurmountable guilt because of his action, the revelation is a reminder of the inhumane nature of war and how far it can push those involved over the edge.

Lane doesn’t reveal the circumstances under which he was forced to carry out such a disturbing act, therefore it’s difficult to fully condemn him. Was it self-defense? Was he ordered to by his commanding officers? Was he too far gone mentally to know what he was doing? While those questions hover over the doc like a black cloud, it’s one of several moments which raise more questions regarding military conditioning. In a sense, the film missed an opportunity not to explore a variety of issues, but at least it invites the viewer to investigate those avenues themselves should they choose to.

Resurface is a decent, albeit brief, examination of how a water sport has provided therapy for those struggling to cope with life after war. The film productively shines some light on mental health issues that aren’t being fully addressed, and the subjects involved have interesting stories to tell. For that alone, it’s well worth your time.

In addition to Nonfics, you can find Kieran over at Film School Rejects, Diabolique Magazine and Arrow Video. When he isn't watching movies or writing about them, he's hanging out with his dog.