Filmmaker Feature: Richard James (Thirty Thousand)

Richard and Andrew James are twin brothers, 26 years old, from Freshwater Beach in Sydney. Surfing and travel have been their lifelong passions so it was natural for them to embark on a filming mission that most would turn and run the other way at the thought of exploring such far off regions of the world.  Thirty Thousand: A Surfing Odyssey from Casablanca to Cape Town, the brother’s first film, is their story of a year long search for waves down the west coast of Africa (30,000 km), a place that some would consider as foreign as the moon. The film won the Audience Choice Award and Best Soundtrack at the International Surf Film Festival, France. In the interview below, Richard gives us some insight into the film, his experiences, and what it takes to find waves where there is little or no evidence of ride-able surf.

Tell us a little background into your film Thirty Thousand. How did the idea come about? How long was the trip? Who was involved, etc…

The west coast of Africa is such a long coastline with so much surf potential that hasn’t really been properly explored. We didn’t really know much about the areas we were going before we left – we were just inspired by looking at the map and wondering what must be out there. The plan was to go down the entire length of the coast, from north to south, starting in Morocco and ending up in South Africa. We gave ourselves a year to do the trip, but really we had no idea how long it was going to take. In the end we had to bypass a few countries by boat, places where we didn’t see much surf potential, because otherwise there was no way we could have done it in 12 months. For the most part it was just my brother Andrew and myself. We had another cameraman, a good friend of ours Tristan Fitzherbert-Smith, who was with us for the first few months, but unfortunately he couldn’t do the whole trip.

Traveling thru Western Africa, you must have some interesting stories. What were some of the more memorable parts of the trip?

Angola was really interesting. It was a really difficult place to travel through. In most places we got by with a little bit of French, but there everyone speaks Portuguese and not a word of English. It’s also incredibly expensive, about $250 per night for a basic hotel room. The only reason we could get by is because we were set up with our own car and camping gear. The economy has been turned on its head by all this oil money that’s coming in there now. People are still dirt poor, but prices are exorbitant. We also heard some crazy stories about the civil war there from a few ex-pats. These guys were amazingly unfazed by the whole thing; gunfights would be going on in the streets and they were just going about business as usual. Then driving out of Angola into Namibia, and the change of scenery from savannah to desert, with so much open space and distance between places it’s almost impossible to believe. The landscape in that part of the world is just incredible, it’s like you’re driving on the moon.

What would you say was the biggest eye opener about Africa in general? And what misconceptions did you have that have now changed after spending time down there?

Everyone associates Africa with poverty, and it’s an accurate impression to some extent, but what surprised up was the incredible inequality of wealth within Africa. There are plenty of super-rich people around, who have made money through government corruption, or oil, or mining. The extent of natural resources that some of these countries have is massive. What we realized is that there’s enough wealth within Africa to turn the entire continent around, if only Africans would start helping Africans.

How did you know where to look for waves? What did it take to access some of the spots in the film? And if you were to go back, where would you hit first?

In most of the countries we visited we knew beforehand there were good waves. It might have been just rumors, or an old photo we’d seen, or something like that. But it’s not easy to find spots. We had to use Google Earth and just figure out the setups with the most potential, and then follow our nose until we thought we’d found a good spot. Then it was a matter of waiting for swell, which could sometimes take up to a month. Access was a big problem – sometimes we were on private land owned by mining companies, sometimes it was a local village who didn’t want you surfing or were trying to make money from you, or the police asking for permits, wanting bribes, things like that. We just had to be low key about it, keep the camera hidden as much as possible, and generally we were able to film what we wanted.

If I had to chose a place to go back, I guess it depends on the kind of waves you’re after. Southern Morocco and Western Sahara have amazing longboard waves, perfect right-hand sand points. And it’s a fairly cruisy area. For barrels I’d go back to Liberia, it has these amazing bowling lefts, and it’s an incredible country to visit, but getting there and getting around is much harder.

If people were to take away one thing from watching Thirty Thousand, what would you hope it would be?

We just want people to be inspired to go travel and search for waves. We wanted to show how much is still out there to be discovered. The world is a smaller place in a lot of ways, because of the way we travel and communicate, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t find perfect waves to yourself if you’re willing to get out there and look.

As far as filming goes, any difficulties in that arena being in some remote areas and the fact that there was only the two of you?

It was hard when there was just the two of us. One would have to film while the other surfed, and then we’d swap over. When the surf was big, and we were in the middle of nowhere, going out on your own isn’t much fun. Especially in Southern Africa sharks are always on your mind. Storing all the footage and backing it up was also a challenge. We had our own generator so we were self-sufficient for power. We’d shoot HD straight onto hard drives, and then post a drive home every month or so.

What’s your background in filmmaking and how did you get started?

I’d done six months of a filmmaking course back in Australia, but I dropped out to do my own projects. I think it’s a better way to learn. Making this film has been a huge eye-opener for us in terms of figuring out how much is involved in putting together a film, as well as how the industry works. It’s been a pretty steep learning curve.

How can people see your film?

The best place to get the film is direct from our website: http://www.thirtythousand.com.au

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