[This feature originally appeared in our June 2017 Issue, “Influencers,” on newsstands and available for download now.]
Cyrus Sutton, the only child of two college professors, spent many of his formative years exploring the American West with his dad—a "fringe critter," according to Sutton—in a VW bus, surfing, fly-fishing, and hiking. This outdoorsy childhood had a hand in fostering the out-of-the-box thinking and curiosity that's defined Sutton's adult life and seen him evolve from talented longboarder to one of the most important documentary filmmakers in surfing today.
Sutton released his first film, Riding Waves, in 2003, taking home the Best Cinematography Award at the X-Dance Film Festival. It featured Rob Machado, Joel Tudor, Donavon Frankenreiter, Dane Reynolds, and John Peck—an eclectic mix of talent that foreshadowed Sutton's unique approach to telling a surfing story: a little groovy, a little soulful, but also chock-full of really good surfing. Putting Riding Waves together also set Sutton on a filmmaker's path.
"Working on Riding Waves was incredible because I learned at 20 years old that making films was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," Sutton says. "I also discovered that I wanted to make bigger, broader documentaries."
But it wasn't until years later that Sutton's vision for broader-themed filmmaking began to influence the surf world. He founded the website Korduroy.tv in 2009, a DIY-inspired blend of sustainability-themed life-hacking tips, organic food recipes, and quirky surf clips. The website was totally unique in the surf media landscape and it instantly cemented Sutton's status as a kind of alternative-living guru. Where else could you find, in one place, tips on growing your own food, fixing your own dings, making your own organic surf wax, and living in your modified car (this was pre-#VanLife), all mixed in with clips of top-of-the-line surfing on alternative shapes? Nowhere, and the surfy internet audience loved it.
Sutton's 2010 film, Stoked and Broke, which featured Sutton and budding surfboard experimentalist Ryan Burch going on a wave-filled walkabout near their San Diego homes, further built on Sutton's desire to make rootsy surf films that didn't shy away from societal issues. In the film, Sutton and Burch live off the largesse of others, frankly consider the costs of building a life around surfing, and explore income inequality in some of Southern California's wealthiest communities. It's a refreshingly honest take on so many of the concerns that linger just on the fringes of surfers' lives.
Sutton's latest work, Island Earth, takes that even further. If you're not already well versed in the corporate (and political) takeover of Hawaii by big-money agriculture interests, Island Earth is likely to send you into a fist-clenching rage. It's filled with tales of Big Ag pumping poisons into crops, fouling water, and destroying the biodiversity that has sustained the Hawaiian people for millennia. But there's still plenty of soulful looks at some of the locals fighting for their land, their culture, their health.
"I really like the idea of localism when it comes to people being close to a place and wanting to protect it," Sutton told me when I asked him about the connection between his surfing and his activism. "We take care of the places that surround us, and that makes us more attuned to the world."
The people in Island Earth battling to take back control of their food systems in Hawaii aren't all that different from anyone who looks around at the world and decides they don't want to just blithely accept the status quo. And perhaps it's Sutton's fascination with people taking charge of their lives and doing things their own way that connects all of his work, be it surf-focused films or exposé documentaries.
"The people in Hawaii are still intimately connected with their roots," says Sutton. "They're trying to take their islands back from a government and from corporations that don't have the best interests of Hawaiians—or the islands themselves—in mind."
Island Earth is just another step along Sutton's path dedicated to exploring the unique voices in surfing and activism, inspiring his audience to seek their own answers—whether that means learning hard lessons about sustainability or just ditching a surfboard in favor of a handplane.
[Above Photo: Roberts]