Big Wata

Surf's up in Sierra Leone

Big Wata During the Ebola outbreak, the younger members of a traditional fishing community discover their identity and purpose through surfing as they join the first and only surf club in Sierra Leone. This beautifully shot documentary shows the diversity and resilience of West Africa, and how a dream can bring light in an otherwise dark time. None
“I don’t know if you’ve ever stood on a surfboard or surfed, or if you have taken off on a wave,” muses a founding member of the Bureh Beach Surf Club. “When you ride on top of the wave, I’m telling you, you have a different feeling. You enjoy the energy of the water. You enjoy the water, the power. You feel the ocean. The melody, you know?”

Bureh Beach Surf Club is the first and only surf club in the small West African nation of Sierra Leone. The sport is almost unknown in this small West African nation, but after the fishermen of Bureh Town watched a foreign NGO worker ride the waves eight years ago, they haven’t looked back. They make the most of the limited resources they have available. “With two surfboards, we taught all twenty surfers in Sierra Leone.”

“We came from a fishing community. But we decided that this wasn’t a good thing. If we continue fishing, at the end of the day we will catch all the fish and we will not have achieved anything.” Surfing has become a new source of income for this small town. Despite the pristine beaches and strong Atlantic-born waves, it can be difficult to attract tourists. The country’s conflict-ridden past still hangs heavily on its shoulders, and the Ebola crisis of recent years has only compounded matters.

Yet the Surf Club’s endeavour is gaining traction, and has the support of the community. Now, a select few members have been invited to visit another surf club in the town of Robertsport in the neighbouring country of Liberia. For most, this will be the first time they will have stepped foot on foreign soil. “Be close to the rest,” one wife warns her departing husband, “Don’t go walking around alone for no reason. You should be careful.” Apprehensive and excited in equal parts, and delayed only slightly by an unfortunate encounter with a sheep, they begin their journey.

Everywhere they travel, their surfboards invoke fascination. “Do you do it in the water?” asks an intrigued border guard. “Does it move by the wind?” The surfers are keen to spread the word about surfing, and this theme is prevalent in their conversations with their new Liberian friends. “There are very few people who earn money from surfing,” says Fonzy, the Chairman of the Robertsport Surf Club. “We want to find a way that it will benefit our country and our community. We want to do it in a way that is unique to our country and to ourselves.” Aspirations even extend to joining the International Surfing Association. “We need to put Africa on the surfing map. That is our plan.”

Their ambitions will not be easy to achieve. “Now, things are very hard. The money is of no value. We are suffering. We, young people are suffering. We have nowhere to go.” Despite the differences between the cultures of the two countries, the two groups of surfers know the value in working together. Their common interest sets them apart, but also binds them. “We need to create our own skill,” says one surfer resolutely. “In Africa we have so many talents.”

LaurelSanta Barbara International Film Festival - Official Selection
LaurelSan Francisco Frozen Film Festival - Official Selection
LaurelMiddlebury New Filmmakers Festival - Official Selection
LaurelHonolulu Surf Film Festival - Official Selection
LaurelSan Diego Surf Film Festival - Official Selection
LaurelOmbak Surf Film Festival (Bali) - Official Selection
LaurelShore Shots Irish Surf Festival - Official Selection
LaurelParis Surf Film Festival - Official Selection
LaurelPortuguese Surf Film Festival - Official Selection
LaurelBrest Surf Film Festival - Official Selection


The Producers

Gugi Van Der Velden - Director

Born in London and currently living in Amsterdam, Gugi Van Der Velden is a director and writer. After studying business he decided to pursue his passion for film. Together with his love for Africa this came to fruition in Big Wata.

Making The Film

Director's Statement

We decided at a very early stage to make a documentary about surfers and not to make a conventional surf film. The main distinction lies in the telling of the personal development of the characters, to tell an intimate story covering universal themes. We also decided to tell these stories through scenes and not to use a voice-over or interviews. We had a very intensive 6 week period of shooting. During that time we worked every day. Because the producer, Floris Loeff, knew the members of the surf club access wasn’t much of an issue. So our effort went into gaining trust, finding the underlying issues, building story and getting enough coverage. To me Big Wata touches on the power of hope and dreams and that once these dreams are attained they make way for new dreams, your horizon shifts.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. For more info see our Cookies Policy