Minna Dufton’s debut feature documentary BIG vs SMALL is a moving cinematic masterpiece about big wave surfer Joana Andrade. It will be shown at film festivals in Glasgow and Dublin in March.
What kind of film is BIG vs SMALL?
“BIG vs SMALL is not your typical surf film. It’s a complex story about small Portuguese woman Joana Andrade. Andrade surfs the biggest waves in the world while also trying to cope with her difficult past. BIG vs SMALL is a story about connection and encounter. Andrade travels to Heinola, Finland to train holding her breath under ice with freediver Johanna Nordblad. The ability to hold breath under cold water is a vital skill for surfers as massive waves can pull you under the water for several minutes at a time. When you are trapped under the water, that it is important to stay calm. Andrade’s experiences and her relentless dedication to always resurfacing has helped her to become one of the best surfers of the world.”
Why did you choose to bring Andrade and Nordblad together? And how did their bond grow over the course of filming?
“It took a significant amount of planning to bring Andrade and Nordblad together. When I travelled in Portugal, I met people who were part of the big wave surfer community. While speaking with them, the spiritual side of surfing would frequently come up in conversation. Many of them spoke of a fear of drowning being one of the biggest concerns. As a result, they put a lot of effort into controlling that fear. Yoga and meditation are integral part of the sport, but additionally surfers often spend a lot of time training in cold water. The best way to practice holding breath inside the wave is to dive under ice, as there is a similar sense of lack of control. I knew Nordblad already and from there came the idea to bring them together. Further, it provided a way to connect this film to Finland in some way.
When I returned back to Finland after the test shoot in June 2018, I contacted Nordblad, explained her Andrade’s story and showed her the demo film. She was intrigued by it and agreed to be part of the project. I knew from the start that they would get along perfectly and therefore I was ready to take the risk and decided to keep them separated, waiting for them to meet in person until the shooting began. Even on the first day of shooting in Allas Sea Pool in Helsinki I kept them on different floors until we got the cameras in place. When they finally met in front of the cameras it was magical, the happy bubbly energy between them transmitted into the film.”
This film was shot amongst massive waves in Nazaré and under the ice in Heinola. What was it like putting together such a complicated shoot?
The shoot in Heinola was carefully planned with Nordblad as she knew the most about filming in icy water. The ice was very thin and there were only few safe spots for the cinematographer or sound recorder to go. We had a bagful of GoPro cameras. Our cameraman Sakke Kantosalo and camera assistant Nikolai Ladikainen invented an idea to drill holes in the ice and attach the GoPro’s to stands, allowing us to film under the water through those holes. Kantosalo placed LED lights on top of the ice to light up the route so that, both above and below water we were able to film. When you are filming a documentary you always have to have a plan B in case something goes wrong. In documentary film you can’t redo the shoot. If you don’t have a plan B, and something goes wrong, then you can’t do it at all and that is horrible.
Nazaré is often windy, and the ocean breeze makes it impossible to keep the cameras dry so it can be said that the conditions were not easy. There were luckily few safe spots in the beach for filming. We consulted professional surf filmmakers who helped us to find good places to set our cameras. When I was planning the filming I met Australian surf filmmaker Tim Bonython and he also joined the project. Bonython has over 40 years’ experience of filming surf and because of him the shoot went smoothly. We reserved the fastest and strongest jet ski for him so that he could quickly escape the massive waves. He had only two people who he agreed to have as his driver and luckily another one was available. Planning for this shoot was like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle but in the end everything went well.
In the film Andrade shares some personal and difficult experiences from her life. What do you feel that a director must consider when working with these kinds of issues?
As a director it is extremely important to me to respect my subjects and to be very mindful. For me this means listening to them, as I only want them to share what they are ready to share. The shoot is always a bubble and it is important that everyone can leave the bubble happy and satisfied with the end result. In this project I sought help from the Irti Huumeista Ry (Finnish support services to people struggling with drug addiction). They guided me on what I should consider in the filming process. Further, I spoke a great deal with them to better understand what is appropriate to ask and what is better not be asked or left unsaid. I also got help from the Ehyt Ry, the Finnish Association for Substance Abuse Prevention, and Delfins Ry, an organisation that supports adults who were abused as children. They guided me to an equivalent Portuguese organisation. I ensured that these resources were always available after shooting, so that Andrade could contact them if she needed to talk to someone. It’s important that it was emotionally and mentally safe while Andrade was interviewed about her trauma. And further, that she would not be left alone, to deal with all that the film had turned up inside her, after the film came out.
BIG vs SMALL has been selected to Glasgow and Dublin film festivals. What expectations do you have for festivals that are completely virtual?
I lived in England for 13 years and studied film there, so this UK premiere is really important to me. I have many friends and colleagues there who are eagerly awaiting the premiere. Many of them remember me as a TV journalist, as while living there I worked for the BBC for many years. But now, I’m coming out with my first feature film! Of course I am hoping to be successful in the festivals, and in particular, at the festival in Dublin, we are nominated for the Virgin Media Audience Award. In Glasgow and Dublin we are doing Q&A sessions where we will be able to answer questions from the crowd, despite being unable to physically be there.
Image: Elina Manninen
Text: Iina Holopainen