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Activism Gets Action-Packed In Patagonia’s Striking New Doc On Big Wave Surfer Ramon Navarro

Director Chris Malloy talks about The Fisherman’s Son, working on brand entertainment with an ulterior motive, and more.

Activism Gets Action-Packed In Patagonia’s Striking New Doc On Big Wave Surfer Ramon Navarro

The story of big-wave surfing hero Ramon Navarro is the stuff of legend. A kid from a remote Chilean fishing village is given a board by traveling surfers and goes on to become one of the world’s best and most respected big wave riders. That beach rags to surfing riches tale alone is enough to justify a 30-minute documentary, but how Navarro is using his skills, fame, and influence as an activist offers an even more compelling narrative.

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The Fisherman’s Son, a new film from Patagonia, uses epic surfing and testimonials from some of that sport’s best to present an inspiring picture of Ramon, but true to the brand, it uses the action to explore his environmental activism. When his hometown of Punta de Lobos came under the threat of massive corporate development, Navarro created a campaign to protect it and its way of life. The film was made in partnership with Save the Waves and aims to raise funds to protect Punta de Lobos through a crowdsourcing effort on Crowdwise.

Director Chris Malloy says that Navarro’s activism is significantly informed by his travels as a pro surfer. “Parts of Chile are like California 100 years ago,” says Malloy, himself a legendary pro surfer. “By traveling to surf, Ramon has a deep understanding of how development works, and its impact on coastal communities. The pursuit of mindful development, as opposed to cut-and-burn, is essential to why he’s doing what he’s doing.”


Malloy, who also directed Patagonia’s 180 South and Worn Wear films, has known Navarro for more than a decade and says they share a similar outlook when it comes to what mindful development means. “Neither of us are leave it all alone types, that want to make certain cultures a museum so people can come, take pictures, and hike a trail,” he says. “We both believe in keeping their farming and fishing cultures alive and progressing, but how do you mindfully develop a place so that can happen and people can still come and enjoy its natural beauty? He’s not only working with conservation folks, but people who have lived there for five generations. It’s complicated and he’s just started this journey that I think he will spend a lifetime working on. He’s starting in his hometown, but trying to create a model to work along the whole Chilean coastline.”

The balance between action and activism is a fine one, but here Malloy hits the sweet spot between wave slashing and a drum circle. “The surf industry, for the most part, just puts out surf porn–get the best surfers with the squarest jaw, put them in the waves, dancing bear, boom, done,” says Malloy. “I’m trying to reel people in with the surfing, then give them something they’re not hearing anywhere else in surf media. But I’m also trying to change the sort of group-hug vibe in a lot of early surf films with an environmental message. It was always very us-versus-them, and a lot of people didn’t like that, including me.”


As a brand, Patagonia has a stated mission of using compelling stories to inspire people to not only buy its products, but also buy into its philosophy and take action. For Malloy, that means jumping on a story as soon as possible and avoid getting bogged down in the bureaucratic side of the creative process.

“I started this with no outline, treatment, or budget, and I do that a lot, says Malloy. “It’s probably not the best way to do it. I just call the people at Patagonia and say, ‘So I’m leaving tomorrow to go shoot this movie.’ It sounds crazy but I haven’t screwed up badly over the years so they trust me. Whenever I’ve done projects with 50-page descriptions, endless meetings, that take six months to budget, it’s always been a disaster for me.”

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The film and companion book have enjoyed a limited roll-out in key markets throughout April on the east and west coasts of the U.S., but now the documentary hits YouTube for everyone else. “The surfing world knew about this South American guy who surfed big waves, but he has such a rich story, it’s been incredible to tell a part of that, then sit and watch people’s eyes light up watching it,” says Malloy. “In a world of nonprofits saving the world one cocktail party at a time, here’s a kid like Ramon doing it in a whole different way.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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