There are surf films with mainstream appeal, and then there are surf movies that only work for those already suffering from the surf disease. The soon-to-be-released documentary Thundercloud is without a doubt a card-carrying member of the latter … sort of.
Approximately two hours long, Thundercloud chronicles one particular wave in Fiji known to surfers everywhere as Cloudbreak. A roping and often perfect tropical lefthander just off the private island of Tavarua, Cloudbreak has been a fantasy wave of sorts for traveling and day-dreaming surfers since its discovery in the early 1970s. However, until just a few years ago, the wave was a private affair with exclusive surfing rights belonging to only those who ponied up the big bucks and stayed at the surf resort on Tavarua. This all changed a few years ago when the wave went public, a twist of fate that came just in time for a historic and monstrous swell in June 2012.
It is that swell that is the meat and potatoes of Thundercloud. Filmmaker Talon Clemow, who shot and directed and produced and edited the whole movie, does an exhaustive job capturing the truly epic surfing that went down that day. Even better, he peppers in frequent interviews with the surfers themselves, giving ample screen time to the crazy spectrum of professional and big-wave surfers on hand for those fateful sessions. Everyone from Kelly Slater and Shane Dorian to Mark Healey, Greg Long, and Reef McIntosh score jaw-dropping and dredging lefthander death pits and also give candid commentary about the waves at hand. The end result is a surf nerd’s wet dream and is guaranteed to make even the most green of wave sliders pledge to visit Cloudbreak someday.
However, as can often be a problem when a storyteller is forced to spin a yarn about a place rich with surf history and dynamic characters, the narrative gets away from Clemow as the film also ambitiously tries to tell the history of Tavarua Island, the associated property-rights struggle, and the series of swells in 2010 and 2011 that led up to the fabled ’12 orgy. His storytelling instincts were right, but the execution is flawed or, at the very least, about an hour too long.