When Nathan Oldfield began making surf films, there wasn’t much out there other than short board compilations set to nineties punk music. So he took a different angle, producing them with personal stories and cinematography, capturing the beauty of the natural world and the human spirit.
For as long as he could remember, Nathan has had an interest in still and moving pictures, borrowing photography books from the library to study light and composition. Responding to his enthusiasm, his father gifted him his first camera when he was eleven. “It was his old mid-sixties 35mm SLR, a Canon FT QL if I remember rightly. I used to play with it without film loaded. I’d pretend to take photos, compose the shot, set the exposure correctly, fire the shutter.”
Today, photography is a candy shop of bottomless sim cards and digital displays, letting us snap and delete pictures on a whim. Back then though, it was a slower, careful process, made even slower by the fact that Nathan taught himself everything he knows. “Buying and developing film was expensive so I was a very selective and deliberate photographer as I grew up. I meticulously kept a journal of aperture and exposure settings as I took my photographs, because it might be months before I ever saw the developed prints.”
“Really, they were all lessons about observation and contemplation and gratitude for the value of simple moments, the divinity of ordinary things.”
In his early twenties, Nathan finally had access to a film camera and has been honing his craft ever since. Having surfed about as long as he’s been taking pictures, it’s no surprise these two worlds collided. When you watch his films, it’s undeniable that surfing has shaped not only his work, but his philosophy on life. “Surfing has given me so much, but when I try to center down onto something specific in a philosophical sense, I think the most enduring thing for me is a kind pantheism that permeates how I see the world. So many of my early surfing memories are about the sheer divinity of everything that was happening around me: the flutter of sunlight through water, the exquisite cry of a seabird, empty backlit waves, the spaciousness of the coast.”
Whether he intended to or not, his latest film Church of the Open Sky seems to contain within it, an underlying commentary that reminds you to pay more attention to life’s ordinary moments. “It all really mattered to me” he shares, “these everyday sacred things.”
“For me, it really distilled surfing down to its fundamental essence of natural, uncontrived play.”
His belief that commonplace things have sacred significance, offers a gentler, inclusive ideal to aspire to, one that’s achievable for everyone. It’s life affirming to be reminded of the cliché that it’s the little things that count in surfing and in life, and the surfing trophies or career milestones are just a welcome add-on. His films have a way of making you feel grateful and inspired to get into the brine and surf no matter how much of a kook you feel you might be.
“Surfing really attuned me to that deep sense of beauty and transcendence. Of course, so much of it was outside the moments of actually standing up and riding a wave. It was more about just actually being out there along the edge of things, between the land and the sea, in all of that wild water and under all of that wide sky. I really had a sense that God was there in everything around me: the landscape, the water, the air, the play of light, even the spirit of the place. Really, they were all lessons about observation and contemplation and gratitude for the value of simple moments, the divinity of ordinary things, the preciousness of being alive.”
“The children ride assorted surf craft on their bellies. They found pieces of driftwood and rudimentary shaped belly boards made from sago palm fronds.”
Church of the Open Sky captures the essence of surfing, not as a sport, but as a channel to connect with nature and satisfy the inherent need for play we all have. The film beautifully captures people’s stories and their relationship to surfing, like the guy who rides glacial waves in the mornings before breakfast and memorably for Nathan, the local kids in remote Papua New Guinea who ride simple makeshift boards. “The children ride assorted surf craft on their bellies. They found pieces of driftwood and rudimentary shaped belly boards made from sago palm fronds,” he says. “It’s generally a wild, wonderful free for all. The whole scene is accompanied by a perfect cacophony of joy: ceaseless conversation, giggling, yelling and slapping boards on the water while waiting for waves. I had tears welling in my eyes and goosebumps dancing on my skin and a lump in my throat while filming and photographing the scene. For me, it really distilled surfing down to its fundamental essence of natural, uncontrived play.”
Similar to the kids in Papua New Guinea, there’s a sense of uninhibited play in Nathan’s creative process. An all-round creative, he’s published poetry and dabbles in painting and shaping surfboards, among other pursuits. “If you have a beautiful thought, or dream, or feeling, or idea – or if you see or experience something that moves your heart — then that thought or experience is beautiful for its own sake. Some people are happy to leave it there, but I’ve always had an innate need to express that, to turn that idea into a poem, a painting, a film, a photograph, a song.”
While he admits it’d be ideal to have film as his main gig, the fact that Nathan doesn’t work as a full time film maker is part of what gives his films their integrity. Working independently affords him uninhibited creativity. “There’s no-one looking over my shoulder requesting the inclusion of sponsored surfers that I don’t resonate with or asking for product placement or anything like that. There are no compromises to feel uncomfortable about. I get to make the call on everything. I make the surf films that I want to make.”
The rest of the time, Nathan maintains his role as a father and primary school teacher and when asked what his creative process looks like, he says, “really, there’s no special process. It’s been a very fine balance at times. It has its seasons. Sometimes there feels like there is a grace and a spaciousness there in holding it all together. At other times it gets stressful and overwhelming, because making a self-funded, independent surf film entirely on your own is a mammoth task. It’s incredibly time consuming and requires a lot of creative energy over a long period. Sustaining that energy can be difficult at times, for sure.”
Travelling to his wife’s island home Sri Lanka with his kids is part of the narrative in Church of the Open Sky and gives a glimpse into this facet of his very full life. Similar to his view that everything under the sky is sacrosanct, or ‘church,’ he sees his several roles as father, teacher and filmmaker in the same light. “Honestly, there is no denying that it’s a juggle, keeping all of those different balls in the air. But I think most parents who work full-time would say that. Whatever, it’s all good. Let’s just say that it’s a sacred juggle. I’m grateful to live such a life.”