Alone off the coast of his wee home in Tiree, Ben Larg found refuge in surfing. The sport was how he coped with the isolation he felt from his peers and, as his talent grew, so did his ambition. The award-winning Scottish documentary film Ride The Wave follows Ben over three years as he takes on his greatest challenge yet – surfing the dangerous big waves of Mullaghmore in Ireland. But, with bullying forcing Ben to withdraw from school, and the financial strain of such a big trip, the wave is only half the battle. It is an intimate and at times heartbreaking story of a young boy finding a way of facing life head-on through the sport he loves. We caught up with director Martyn Robertson ahead of the film’s UK release.
Tell me about the film – what drew you to Ben’s story, specifically?
I had been following some of the press on Ben even at the early stages of his kind of rise to success, and I was looking for a really strong story to make a feature documentary about. I went to school with Ben’s uncle, so I managed to get his family’s phone number and they gave me access to the story.
We travelled all over the world with them, initially thinking that we were making a film about Ben becoming one of Britain’s first representatives in the Tokyo Olympics – competition surfing was the route he was following at that point. Had he kept going, that’s perhaps where the film would have landed. But I suppose, like all good journeys, they take a twist, don’t they?
If you’ve watched the film, you’ll see it changes direction and takes on a different form of surfing, which is essentially Ben versus wave rather than him versus other competitors. I think that was for the good of the story, and I think it meant that there was a lot more drama because of the danger involved.
You spent a lot of time with Ben and his family. What was it like when you suddenly weren’t together all the time?
We keep in touch all the time, so I know what’s going on, but it is weird that we’re not in the same room. Most surfers, if they’re really lucky, have coaches and physios following them around – Ben had a film crew. We just immersed ourselves in the surfing lifestyle: lived with them, ate with them, travelled with them, and slept in the same houses at times with them as well. So they kind of forgot we were making a film, which is good! So, yeah, it has been quite weird.
In the film, you touch on the difficult topic of Ben being bullied. How was filming that, and having to decide how much of it you were going to show?
I think we’ve all experienced challenges growing up, whether it be bullying or something else. Ben was struggling with fitting in. He didn’t have his tribe around him at home on his rural island in Scotland.
He found it quite difficult to talk about, but it was real and so we had to feature it in some way. And actually, Ben’s desire to go and surf, to become the youngest boy to surf that cold water wave, was born out of his struggles at the time. It was almost like a catalyst for him.
A lot of surf prep involves things feeling right and knowing on the day. How did you adapt to that unpredictability?
It’s a nightmare! Filming surfing is one of the biggest nightmares that you could ever imagine as a filmmaker, because it doesn’t work when you want it to. You could plan and plan, but ultimately, you could also waste a lot of money if you planned it all for one day. It’s as simple as that.
We learned a lot from the surfing community, actually. They do a lot of DIY filming of themselves and we kind of had to learn a little bit about how they did it as well.
Would you ever consider a follow-up film?
I think there is a follow-up story that can be told. We feel really privileged and lucky to have been there to capture the beginnings of Ben’s surf career. This is a boy who’s one of the most exciting sporting talents in Scotland, if not Britain. So there’s inevitably going to be a number of things made about Ben in the future and maybe we’ll be part of them.
You’ve had quite the year with the film festival circuit, but how do you feel now that the general public are finally getting to see the film?
Well, it’s lovely because it has been all over the world at a time when some of those screenings were remote and not in cinemas, due to the pandemic. So it’s really nice to be coming back to Scotland at a time when cinemas are open and we can all get out and fill the room.
Ride the Wave will be released 9th September with screenings at GFT in Glasgow, Summerhall in Edinburgh, Macrobert Arts Centre in Stirling, and more across the country.
By: Morven Ferguson Mackay