Q&A: New Documentary "Wade in the Water" Spotlights Surfing's African Roots

A conversation with film director David Mesfin on Black surfing, shifting cultures, and Africa's unrecognized role in surf history

Q&A: New Documentary "Wade in the Water" Spotlights Surfing's African Roots


Siraad Dirshe


Courtesy Wade in the Water

When film director David Mesfin discovered that the first documented surfers were off the coast of Africa in 1640, nearly 200 years before anywhere else in the word, he was stopped in his tracks. The information stood contrary to the mainstream narrative most of know of surfings's origins—that it's rooted in Hawaii and Southern California. Often the only Black person in the water and the line up, Mesfin had never imagined that his people were some of the world’s first surfers. The discovery changed everything, giving him a sense of pride he’d never felt before as a Black surfer.

It also inspired Mesfin to create Wade in the Water: A Journey into Black Surfing and Aquatic Culture, a new documentary four years in the making, telling the history of Black surfers and their relationship with the water, past and present.

While Mesfin has spent the bulk of his career telling stories through commercial advertising he’d never made a documentary prior, or attempted to tell such a personal and dynamic story. But he knew he had to. His creative journey wasn't without hurdles and speed bumps, especially in finding distribution for the film. “Everywhere we went, people were like, no, not interested," he shares about his experience trying to get people on board with this very important story. "And this was post Black Lives Matter.”

"Wade in the Water" Director David Mesfin

Thankfully, as a seasoned creative, Mesfin was comfortable thinking a little outside of the box and tapping into the power of community to get things done. While most of the production and editing for the documentary was done by a small but mighty team it’s clear that it has been fully embraced by the Black surfing community. There are cameos in the film from surfing heavy hitters like Selema Masekela alongside lesser known legends like Sharon Shafer and Rick Blocker which is one of the many beautiful things about the film.

After more than a year of showing the film at film festivals from California to South Africa, the public will be finally able to watch the film on PBS, Amazon Direct, and Vimeo streaming starting 19 June 2024—Juneteenth. Mesfin wants to use this film as a way to not only honor the past but also inspire the future. “The mantra we've had from the beginning is to inspire the next generation of Black surfers,” he emphatically shares. Keep reading to learn more about his own creative journey, the most surprising things he learned while creating Wade in the Water, and how he plans to continue telling this story.

Read on to learn more about Mesfin and the film's origins in our exclusive interview below.

When did you first learn that Black folks were some of the first documented surfers?

In 2010, I heard about Black Surfers Collective having this event for [Nick] Gabaldón [who is recognized as California's first documented surfer of African-American and Latino descent]. I went and that’s where I met Allison Jefferson and learned so much about Nick and Bruce's Beach. I also learned about Kevin Dawson and his book Undercurrents of Power and we got on a Zoom shortly after.

I read that surfing existed a thousand years back and started to understand our spiritual connection with the ocean. We each have our own path but it's connected to the ocean and that's something I really wanted to be able to tell. I had a lot of that story in the back of my mind for a while but I just needed to finally decide to tell the story. I had a great producer who was from Ethiopia, but Eritrean, and we really connected and he wanted to help me. For a long time it was a two person production; moving, driving and making appointments. Eventually there was an editor and the team started growing.

What was something that you were surprised to learn throughout the process of making this film?

Honestly, it was the aquatic nature of Black people and how we're all connected to the ocean. Historically, there were African messengers that would swim out to the boat and get messages to those on board. Also, in the Caribbean there were divers who would dive and collect all the gold from the Spanish ships during colonial rule. I watched how these two stories really resonated with a lot of viewers and how people became touched because they didn't know this was part of their story.

Living in Southern California I always felt like surfing was a white man's sport and I felt like an outcast. And then you find out that surfing, like taekwondo or karate, existed in and was documented in Africa. These things are a part of our history and story. So, I knew this was important to share [the history of surfing] with the community and the younger generations of surfers.

"On the surface it's about surfing but it's really about justice and equality."

Sidy Camara

While this is your first documentary, you’ve been telling stories long before this. Can you share a bit about your creative journey?

I'm a creative director so I know the ropes of production. I also have two kids who were 17 and eight at the time of the murder of George Floyd. It was then that I found myself having these talks with my kids about what's happening because they were asking me questions. So, as a dad, surfer, and a Black man living in America I felt like I needed an outlet. Being a creative person, I needed to express myself in some shape or form.

Visual language is very natural to me. So, while I've never done a documentary, I know the process of creating something visual very well. At first, I was just going to do portraits of Black surfers to put them in the forefront and say we exist. But as I started to learn everyone’s stories, I realized there was something much bigger here that needed to be told. So I took the cameras and went to shoot, and was like, I can do this.

Tell us about your own surfing history. And do you have a favorite spot?

I've been surfing for years––since I was 14. I was born in Ethiopia and was adopted and brought to Saint Augustine, Florida where I lived for eight years. Even though I didn’t necessarily know the historical significance and Civil Rights history when I lived there, I'm happy I learned how to surf and swim there.

Surfing has always been part of my life and I still make it a point to get out. I was just in South Africa and there's a place called Long Beach, so I had to go there. But I have to say, Waikiki is probably my favorite.

Sierra Raequel

Do you think our larger cultural understanding of Black folks' contributions to surfing has changed from when you first started this film four years ago?

Definitely, I think people are proud to hear the story and proud to share it. But I’ve only reached a small group of people and the wider world still doesn't know the story. If you search on Google, we never show up. The objective is to get the message out because Wade in the Water is very much a Trojan horse. On the surface it's about surfing but it's really about justice and equality. This film is about having deeper dialogue about race relations in America.

Now that the film is available to stream, what’s next?

Another documentary for sure. I wasn’t able to pack everything within this one. There's so many other individual stories and organizations around the world that we have not heard from. I want to bring those stories about our connection to the Caribbeans and Africa to life.

I also really want to be able to tell the story of the youth. There's some amazing surfers up and coming that are just so talented and passionate who are truly embracing surfing through their culture. That’s the most beautiful part of this project and I am looking forward to doing part two.

"Wade in the Water" is now available for streaming.

Watch HERE

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