A Surrogate Family Takes to the Waves in ‘Momentum Generation’

‘Momentum Generation’ follows young surfers in Hawaii as they become stars and rivals in the sport.
‘Momentum Generation’ follows young surfers in Hawaii as they become stars and rivals in the sport. Photo: Art Brewer/Surfer Magazine

The new documentary film “Momentum Generation,” set to premiere Tuesday on HBO, traces the bond among nine surfers, including 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, who went on to transform and dominate their sport.

They first came together in Hawaii as teenage boys, most from chaotic homes, on the North Shore of Oahu in the 1980s. One of them, Benji Weatherley, lived with his single mom in a house overlooking the famed Pipeline surf spot. There the surfers formed a surrogate family even as they relentlessly pushed each other to new feats in the water.

“It changed the way we perceived safety. At 15 we were surfing 25-foot waves. It was unbelievably dangerous,” Mr. Weatherley recalls in the film.

At the time, a friend and budding filmmaker, Taylor Steele, captured their aggressive surfing style on camera, cutting those sequences with punk-rock songs in a VHS release titled “Momentum.” The 1992 video helped raise the profile of surfing as more than a laidback hobby, and the “momentum” moniker followed the friends as they became international competitors and, eventually, rivals.

A scene from the new HBO documentary ‘Momentum Generation.’
A scene from the new HBO documentary ‘Momentum Generation.’ Photo: HBO

“Momentum Generation” directors, brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, were recruited for the project by executive producers including Robert Redford. The Zimbalists heard what is music to the ears of documentary filmmakers: “a storage unit full of raw material,” says Jeff, referring to thousands of hours of unreleased vintage footage shot by Mr. Steele.

They licensed archival video from 130 sources, some with competing claims of ownership. “There are rivalries between surf filmmakers from those years. We had to navigate a lot of politics,” says Jeff, whose documentaries with his brother include “The Two Escobars,” about a shared history between drug cartels and Colombian soccer.

Just as crucial to the new film were extensive interviews with its nine subjects, who were candid about forces—fame, championships, a death in their midst—that eventually frayed their relationships with each other and to the sport.

“The interplay between camaraderie and competition, it was always some ratio of one to the other,” says Michael Zimbalist. “When the balance shifted, that’s when things started to get hairy for them.”

“Momentum Generation” airs Tuesday on HBO.

Write to John Jurgensen at john.jurgensen@wsj.com

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