Life shaped the man, and the man shaped the world’ is the tagline for Waterman, a lively documentary about a true sporting great; Native Hawaiian Duke Paoa Kahanamoku. Directed by Isaac Halasima, Waterman might sound like rather a niche project; I’ve never been to Hawaii, couldn’t surf a wave if I was strapped to the board, and know little about Olympic history. What I do enjoy, however, is a good story well told, and Waterman is exactly that. Waterman also gets a boost from narration by the genial Jason Momoa, hopefully hiving off a few of his comic-book fans to learn about the life of a real super-hero.
Duke Paoa Kahanamoku lived some time ago, and died way back in 1968; fortunately he participated in a This Is Your Life television celebration, and that helps provide a structure to get his story across in his own words. Born in 1890, Kahanamoku was a naturally gifted swimmer who quickly became a record-breaking sensation in the pool. The Duke, as his fans knew him, was a instant star, and wowed audiences with his speed, and with his abilities with surfboards. But despite a handful of appearances in films, Duke seemed to lose out to Olympic rival Johnny Weissmuller when it came to landing cinema’s big roles like Tarzan, and Duke returned to Hawaii to become an iconic figure, a talisman for the country.
Waterman has plenty of hot topics to explore; Duke’s rise to fame is very much against the grain of racist attitudes of the time. But Duke was also a genuine hero; there’s several remarkable rescues to be described here, not least a sinking ship from which Duke rescues eight souls on his own speed. All eight of them turn up to thank him as part of the This Is Your Life episode, and if watching that doesn’t choke you with emotion, you should get your pulse checked. Waterman also makes a virtue of not just using archive; there’s vivid re-enactments which really make the narrative pop, and the mental toll on Duke of those he couldn’t save is acknowledged with sober gravity.
Duke Paoa Kahanamoku didn’t always get the financial and popular success he merited during his lifetime; he deserves a proper tribute, and Waterman absolutely fits the bill. With tributes from surfing greats, and other notables like singer Jack Johnson, it’s clear that the Duke made a huge impression on his homeland, and epitomised the very best of Hawaii to the outside world. Some films go from the known to the unknown; Waterman tells a story which you’re unlikely to know, and tells it with a skill and pathos that you won’t forget in a while.
In the USA, WATERMAN is opening theatrically April 15th in LA and NY, with platform expansion beyond that, the film opened ( April 1st) in Hawaii. I’ll post UK links when I get them.