Surfing is loaded with young guns that can huck air reverses while texting and can ride while posting to Instagram simultaneously. While this group is inspiring in their talent, the sheer volume of great surfers makes it hard for any one to stand out. So, what does it take?
Ask Kyle Thiermann. The 24-year-old has made a name for himself not only as a great surfer, but also as a surfer that’s doing something extra. Thiermann has used the sport as an avenue to approach issues he cares about, issues that have an impact beyond surfing.
Kyle Thiermann getting barreled. Photo Credit: Ryan Chachi Craig
Before he was even 20, the Santa Cruz local produced a series of films on multinational banking’s funding of a coast-based coal power plant in Chile. The construction would’ve wiped out the local economy and the local surf spot. Thiermann’s series, Surfing For Change, inspired thousands of individuals and organizations to move their money from Bank of America, reducing the bank’s lending power by hundreds of millions of dollars. The project also jumpstarted Thiermann’s career as a filmmaker.
Now as a Patagonia ambassador with sponsors like ClifBar, Sector 9,and FCS, Thiermann has covered genetically modified crops in Hawaii, plastic pollution in Indonesia and foam recycling programs in Santa Cruz. His films often feature top surfers like Kelly Slater. He speaks regularly to university audiences and even produced a TEDx talk.
We caught up with Thiermann between a presentation at San Diego State and beach barrels in Mexico.
How did this all begin? I come from a very active family. Both my parents are documentary filmmakers, so that definitely influenced me. My mom started a program called “ Above the Line,” which was the first homeless teen center in the United States. Being around that definitely had an impact.
Just being in an activist community, a lot of times people brand activism in a way that doesn’t encourage it. That made me want to make the Surfing for Change series more fun and more digestible. I’ve seen movements really turn people off by being shout-y and forceful.
Screenshot from recent video against GMOs
What does surfing add to your films? I think it makes it more fun. People want to be entertained before they want to be educated. We need to blend entertainment and education. Who doesn’t want to go on a fun surf trip?
Does having an activism component to these films take away from your surfing? It is a lot of work when we’re out on a shoot. Basically all day every day, we’re out getting the footage and interviews we need. In some ways it does take away from surfing, but I also make sure to go on just for fun surfing trips.
Kyle and Kelly Slater together at a protest against the use of GMOs in Haleiwu, Hawaii
Have you encountered pro surfers that are hesitant to take part in the causes you’re part of? I think most pro surfers are interested in something other than how to do a cutback. When I invite pro athletes to be engaged in an important issue, I’ve found most of them are really stoked to be involved. Professional athletes have such a big influence in today’s society. Hopefully, Surfing For Change is allowing these athletes to have a microphone to get their ideas out, especially when you have someone really intelligent like Kelly Slater. I think he really enjoys it.
Who are some of you influences outside of surfing? Annie Leonard is a really big influence of mine. She does the Story of Stuff Project.
You surfed Mavericks this year, right? Was that your first time out there? That was my second time, but it was definitely the biggest waves I’ve ever surfed. It was the big Tuesday before the contest. I got to go out there with Shawn Dollar, who’s a big wave pro surfer from Santa Cruz. It was a really cool experience. I love big waves. I’m training a lot right now to start surfing more big waves next winter.
Kyle about to get barreled Photo Credit: Ryan Chachi Craig
Are you leaning more towards surfing or documentary filmmaking? Is it difficult to balance both? I love balancing both. I love traveling, so it’s really fun for me to do a Surfing For Change documentary and then do a straight surf trip. It keeps me really passionate about what I do.
Are there causes that you’d like to participate in that are difficult to frame through the lens of surfing? Definitely. It’s something I struggle with. I’m really passionate about campaign finance reform. It’s hard to get surfing involved with campaign finance reform.
But, right now, I’m 24. I love educating myself as much as possible and keeping my finger on the pulse of what’s going on. I’m in this for the long haul, so there will be plenty of time to cover every issue under the sun.
Screenshot from original Surfing for Change shows Kyle in a small village in Chile
Among people of your age group, do you often come across similar passions? I think young people are really ready to see change happen. I think they’re ready for political accountability. I tour around the country doing speeches at universities. People are ready for change. It’s just about bringing the message to them in a way that’s not overwhelming. I think that’s something our team at Surfing For Change has gotten really good at.
I think most pro surfers are interested in something other than how to do a cutback.
Some of the issues you’ve covered have been pretty controversial. Have you ever felt like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew? I think that if you’re only getting applause for what you’re doing and there’s no controversy, then you’re not really doing enough. There needs to be that discourse if you want to create change. For stuff to really stick, there has to be some friction involved. I’m comfortable with that friction and I’m comfortable with people disagreeing with me. But I’m going to say what I believe, even if I’m calling out a big company or person.
Protesters march against Monsanto in Haleiwu, Hawaii
Can you tell me a little more about some of the documentary films you’ve been inspired by? There’s a great film called Thrive. I love more art form documentaries. Exit Through the Gift Shop is one my favorites. Hot Coffee is another one of my favorites. There’s one called Elemental that was really good as well.
What’s next? We have a couple big projects in the works that I can’t really talk about yet. There will be one about shifting the materials we use in the surf industry, about changing the way we make wetsuits.
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