Life Surfing, Albe Falzon

At Coastbeat we love surfing – no secret. So, when we discovered that the man who made what many regard as one of the greatest surf films ever lived in Coastbeat country, we had to get the scoop.

“It’s a great gift,” says Albe Falzon, “to understand the purpose of your life.” Film-maker, surfer, photographer, writer and environmentalist Albert Falzon, discovered his when he was just eight years old and his grandfather showed him the ocean for the very first time. He knew that his life would be bound to the sea, expressed through his other great love: photography.

Albe’s most famous documentary, Morning of the Earth, is renowned as one of the greatest surf film ever made. Since its release in 1972, Albe has traveled the world making documentaries about the myriad ways to celebrate life on this planet. His camera has taken him to Timbuktu and back, literally.

Albe riding a wave in Noosa
The surf is still supreme. Image by Robyn Wren

We meet in a sunlit café in Bellingen, near where Albe has settled on acreage he bought back in 1972. Of course, there’s great surf nearby and our interview is dependent on there not being a high-pressure system off the coast!

“This part of the world is paradise: we have amazing, empty beaches, beautiful rainforest, community and really rich cultural diversity,” he says, grinning broadly. “There is great unity to be found through celebrating diversity.”

Although this green region is very different to the landscape of Albe’s childhood, the philosophies of sharing and community are the same.

“I grew up in Redfern, in inner-city Sydney, where my grandmother bought adjoining three-storey houses and knocked the interior walls through. She believed in keeping everyone together, so I lived with extended family: nine different families in all. It really was one of the first communes, although we never called it that.”

School was ‘a waste of time’, says Albe. He attended a city Catholic school but rejected the life they offered him. Albe left school and pursued an education through copious reading and later, travel.

“My mother told me to follow my love. For me that has always been photography and surfing. I wanted to make a really beautiful, positive film about the world.”

Albe travelled up and down the northeastern coast of Australia, filming his friends surfing – mates like Nat Young, David Treloar, Stephen Cooney and many more who became famous surfers. Then in 1971, with the young Stephen Cooney and legendary big wave surfer, Rusty Miller, he took his camera overseas through Bali and Indonesia to Hawaii.

The opening sequence of Morning of the Earth was filmed at Haleakala Crater in Maui on infrared film, very early one morning. Albe was trying to capture the feeling of creation, coupling it to the powerful, essential energy that surfers experience when riding a wave.

“The art of life is understanding that everything is a wave. When you’re in tune and on the wave, it’s effortless and powerful, impermanent and beautiful. Surfing is a great metaphor for life.”

Life Surfing, Albe Falzon
An image from the Tibetan documentary, courtesy of Albe Falzon.

A big part of Morning of the Earth was the music. Albe enlisted Australian bands and songwriters, showing them sections of the edited footage and asking them to compose for that section. What emerged was one of the first film soundtracks celebrated in its own right, winning a coveted Gold Album award.

The success of Morning of the Earth led to more documentaries in a similar style. Albe shot them all on 8mm film, a format that didn’t require big crews because he wanted to be invisible in the world of his subjects.

“None of the international distributors ever asked me what I shot on. Technology is great but only for what I can do with it. I think we get too hung up on the glamour of new technology and forget that it is just a tool.”

Like Morning of the Earth, his next documentary arose from hanging out with friends, in Santa Barbara. There he filmed eccentric surfer and inventor George Greenough building his boat, Morning Light, and surfing. The resulting work, Crystal Voyager, with a soundtrack by Pink Floyd, received a standing ovation at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

From there Albe travelled to Sri Lanka to meet mate Michael White and the young unknown writer, Arthur C. Clarke. Their conversations led to the six-part documentary series Festivals of the Far East, which took Albe to some of the most inaccessible cultural festivals across Sri Lanka, India, Burma, Ladakh and Tibet. Enduring sub-zero temperatures and climbing mountains at over 10,000 feet to access a hidden valley, Albe became the first person to document the sacred Tibetan Wesak Festival.

“Up there in Tibet they breathe rarefied air: it’s a rarefied energy,” Albe says of the experience. Festivals of the Far East has been released in over 80 countries and is still the most comprehensive and beautiful footage of these ancient cultural events. After Festivals of the Far East, Albe was commissioned to make Festivals of the World, a series of twelve 30-minute films spanning twelve countries.

“It was too much,” Albe comments. “That sort of shooting schedule doesn’t allow time to really immerse yourself in the culture. I wanted to do things differently.”

Despite Albe’s reservations, the documentary series was released internationally to great acclaim. Albe went on his own way and made The Road to Timbuktu, on a two-month journey across the Sahara from Marrakesh to the Ivory Coast.

The Road to Timbuktu, Sahara Desert
From The Road to Timbuktu courtesy of Albe Falzon

“I was never driven by economic rewards. It was always about the vision.”

To share his love of the surfing lifestyle, Albe and friends David Elphick and John Witzig started Tracks magazine in 1970. Albe describes its inception as a ‘confluence of energies’, creating a public voice for the surfing counterculture. Albe has been a Buddhist for most of his life and cites the compassion and kindness of Buddhism as his guiding principles. I ask him about the commercial surfing world, the competitions and the macho image of the uber-sportsman. How does he deal with this in the surf?

“I try to react with kindness and if that’s not enough I leave them be,” he replies. “You can’t change anyone’s perspective if they aren’t ready to change. But surfing is a great saviour. As soon as you’re in the water it wipes the slate clean.”

Back in his rainforest home, Albe’s walls are decorated with symbols of peace. The garden is full of birds and he is a WIRES volunteer caring for marsupials, some of whom are still lolloping across his lawn. He has a remarkable collection of surfboards adorned with images of positive power to take into the surf.

“Some people travel the world to find beauty,” Albe comments. “I find the world in my garden.”

Albe is working on collating and editing his body of work for publication. He has studied transpersonal psychology and meditation for the last 20 years and these practices inform his writing, visual art and surfing.

Life Surfing, Albe Falzon
Albe while filming in the Himalayas for the Wesak Festival documentary

“Life is effortless because all possibilities already exist, just waiting to be experienced. The images and films I make are already there, just waiting for me to point the camera at them. I have never had what you might call a regular job – the universe has always provided what I need when I need it and living has been my work. There is great joy to be found in understanding your purpose in life and finding the faith to follow that purpose. Some people have moments in their life; my whole life has been a moment.”

Watching Morning of the Earth, talking to Albe and comparing his vision of life with what I see daily, I wonder out loud if somewhere between then and now the human race has lost its way. It makes me feel sad for how the world could have been. In reply, Albe is optimistic. He believes that we are always changing and that one day we will understand the power that comes through connection and the simple philosophy of kindness. Through Albe’s eyes, every morning is a Morning of the Earth.

Find out more at www.albertfalzon.com

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