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Beth O'Rourke

It’s mid morning when I arrive at Beth’s Ventura home -- early enough that people are still waking up but late enough that surfers are already getting out of the ocean.

Beth sweeps me into a big hug. Her dog leaps in excitement and her teenage son engages in a short conversation about the last days of summer. She pours me coffee and gives me fruit before we walk to the beach in bare feet. Everything is casual. We sit in the sand and watch her neighbors try to make the best of the messy waves while we talk and intercept dogs without leashes.

Our conversation reminds me of Beth’s most admirable traits, including her ability to self reflect and share in an honest and raw way as well as her ability to laugh at herself. We decide to go for a surf, and Beth loads our logs into her white VW van and shuttles us a few miles down the road.

Everywhere we go, people say hi to Beth and Beth says hi to people. She knows everyone. I understand how loved she is and how many lives she touches with her work, her down-to-earthness, her fun-loving personality and her humanity.

Meet Beth.

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On immersing yourself in what you love:

I typically make one to two short films a week in the ocean. They’re normally vignettes of what I love and what I think is fun and beautiful. It’s pure joy for me. I go a little stir crazy if I don’t have something happening.

Most of the time, swimming with my friends while they surf is way more fun for me than actually surfing. I think it’s because I get to see people experiencing so much joy and having so much fun in the water. It’s an expression of something I love deeply and that love expands when I’m sharing it with other people who might not understand what it feels like to ride a wave.

On answering the question, “What do you do?”

Depends on who asks me. (Laughs)

When I moved to Ventura, nobody had any idea what I did because I didn’t say anything. They just saw me surfing. I personally see myself as a filmmaker. But I went to art school. I paint. I’m a printmaker. I’m a creative and I make stuff. I would love to paint more and get more art shows going but I don’t know.

I’ve been trying to figure out in the last year or two how I would characterize myself. Which sounds weird and kind of self centered, but it’s true, and it’s very challenging. You should see my trying to make a website for myself. I have no fucking clue.

(Laughs) I don’t know, I make stuff. I make stuff and I don’t even want to say I’m a maker because it has completely run its course and sounds lame.

On the hero’s journey:

With all the documentary films that I make with Jeff, my partner at SeaLevel TV, we try to uncover the hero’s journey.

Sometimes you see films along the lines of, “I really care about the ocean, I really love the ocean, don’t pollute the ocean.” This is fine because it does send a message and it’s creating awareness. However, if I sit down with you and I tell you something that happened to me once that was a really hard situation that changed me forever in some way, that’s what would stick with you on a true emotional level.

That’s what would make you believe in me as an authentic human and somebody who’s lived life and been knocked on their ass a couple of times and gotten back up and done things for the right reasons.

As humans we’ve passed on these stories of heroes that always revolved around a lesson. The lesson usually was about someone coming face to face with something everyone fears and overcoming that. That’s what we try to do with our films.

So if you go back to the ocean example -- yes, there’s too much plastic. We could go do a beach cleanup right now and fill a bag full of plastic from the beach. But what is that emotional connection?

For example, with the Elissa Steamer doc, “Timeless Areas, she pretty much went into the depths in terms of drug and alcohol abuse. The amazing thing about Elissa is that she was always successful anyway. She was always smart and she always knew herself and I feel like she always had something specific driving her, even if she didn’t make it known. So I could tell you about substance abuse or you could hear about it from someone who lived it.

On the Elissa Steamer Documentary “Timeless Areas:

I met Elissa at Ocean Beach in San Francisco one day. I was surfing with two friends who are OG skate guys.

We’d have a good time in the water and be silly with no ego, mostly just wondering why everyone else was so serious.

So Elissa came along to surf and, you know, Ocean Beach can get heavy. I saw her paddle into some epic waves and I’m like, “Who is this chick throwing herself over the ledge and taking these gnarly wipeouts?”

I started to get to know her and we hung out a bunch -- went surfing and such. Then one day she was telling me she met her life partner and we started to talk about personal stuff and it just felt so real and unvarnished. She started telling me about her life and I was like, “Hey do you mind if I stick a camera in your face?”

Here’s the crazy part. When I first met her on the beach, I had no idea who she was. And I didn’t for a really long time. Finally, maybe six months later, I found her on YouTube and I was like, “Holy shit, she’s one of the best skaters I’ve ever seen in my life.” It’s not a man or woman thing -- she’s just an insanely talented athlete. She has a brilliance and vibrancy and a uniqueness that you don’t normally see in skaters.

So I was motivated at that point. I asked if anyone had told her story and told her I want to dig into it. I asked her how she felt about really personal questions and she said, “I’m an open book.” Now that is a true act of bravery.

She’s gonna tell the world about shit people would never even speak of because they’re too ashamed or embarrassed. For me, being in proximity to people who can do that is a constant source of faith that most people are really trying hard to be better.

One of the by products of Timeless Areas that I did not anticipate is that it’s surfacing an issue in the skating community about substance abuse to harm yourself or medicate or numb. It’s really interesting to raise awareness about this thing that needs to be talked about so we can all be healthier through a film and a person’s story.

As corny as it sounds, I know we all really aim toward living our best life and realizing, and this is also cliche, the potential of each one of us to do something that has meaning. It might not have meaning in a way that gets you a lot of recognition or fame, but maybe it has meaning just to you as a person. Filming Elissa was that to me. She’s just amazing.

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On being vulnerable:

My work is fulfilling but it’s also very vulnerable. I have to say, the older I get the more I realize how fragile our existence is. One little decision can tip the balance and flip the switch, and coming back from those decisions can be a long, arduous journey that dominates our lives.

In Cori Schumacher’s piece, “Waves of Disruption: The Cori Schumacher Story” (Hawai’i International Film Festival Official Selection) she really opened up for us and said some things about women’s surfing and how she felt she’d been marginalized. She realized when she was on tour that she was the quote “problem” because she was gay. Elissa talks about this too.

The coming-out stories are such an act of bravery still. I’m not sure kids realize now that the path was paved by so many people before us that had to suffer abuse and beatings -- and still today.

On being driven from a deeper place:

There’s some people who are just driven from a deeper place. It’s not about fame, it’s not about recognition and it’s not about Instagram followers. It’s just because they need to go skating everyday or they need to be in the ocean everyday. It’s not because they’re a mermaid or a “salty soul.”

When I think about all those terms, I wonder if they strip us of our individuality. In some ways it identifies us as a powerful group. But it also marginalizes the people that may not be a mermaid or a merman.

It’s a convenient fabrication aimed at an ideal that not many can achieve — an idealized marketing fantasy. How about being someone who just loves to be in the ocean?

On male-dominated spaces:

I’ve pretty much always been in mostly male circles -- since I was a kid because I always played sports. The older I got, the more I started to realize, “I’m the only woman in this conference room right now.”

I wonder sometimes if that hyper awareness of being a woman in a male-dominated space helps or hinders us. I know bias had to be called out because a lot of people feel that women aren’t in certain spaces because men keep them away or keep them out. I have personally felt that. It’s happened to me over and over again and at those times, I hadn’t been aware that I was being held back because I was born and identify as a female. If you scoff at this, statistics don’t lie. USC Annenberg, among others, is doing a fantastic job of elevating the narrative both by the numbers and anecdote with their “Inclusion Initiative”.  The LA Times has also devoted a significant amount of space to the lack of opportunities for women, citing startling ratios like, “22 males to each female director”.

On the other hand, I’ve been the President of Malibu Surfing Association for the last year. I’ve also been the team captain for the last 4 years. I’m the only woman on the board and have been for at least the last 5 years. I feel unbelievable support from my all-male board and the membership. So there are plenty of examples in my own life that run contrary to the popular storyline. I suspect that this is true for other women, too.

Inside, I don’t feel necessarily like a traditional man or a woman. I just feel like a person, and I’ve always felt like a person traveling through life.

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On women in filmmaking:

I’m not surrounded by other women filmmakers or creative directors much. As a creative director in advertising, so few of us are women. It’s even lower for directors in film making. Luckily, I’m surrounded by one of the best female filmmakers, Devyn Bisson, who created the Wave I Ride -- the film that tells Paige Alms’ story. I had the unreal privilege of teaching a “cinema verite” style documentary filmmaking class at Champman Universtiy Dodge College of Film and Media Arts with her in the winter of 2017.

Devyn knew there was a story with women’s big wave surfing and she was on it from the get go. She doesn’t get enough credit for that.

She dug into Paige’s life and told a story about her wanting to go into male-dominated space in an authentic way. She naturally gravitated toward that specific thing she wanted to do in her life. She was just completely committed to that and focused on it -- and that’s when it’s beautiful.

With film making, we haven’t been exposed to enough films and media coming from women -- and that doesn’t necessarily mean that it all has to be about women. I know a lot of my stuff is focused on women because I feel like there’s no other opportunity for these strong people to be celebrated. Though the subjects trend toward women, I only think, “This person is so talented at this one thing or two things or three things and they’re amazing personalities and they’re so vibrant and other people need to watch this and hear this.” We just need to elevate the platform and get some actual dollar behind promoting other angles.

I tend to put the lens on women because I feel like they’re underrepresented as a people. Women as a people -- less as a gender and more as a cultural group.

I don’t really discriminate in terms of whether I want to tell a story of a man, a woman or whomever, however they identify. It’s a choice because it just so happens that for every single story I do on a woman there’s going to be a hundred on a bunch of guys. So I’m like, “Why don’t we throw this into the mix?” It can be very discouraging for me because I may be cute and fun and smart but that’s not what I really have to offer. I have my skills and talents. I’m not good at politics. I’m far better at working hard to make unconventional films and connecting with audiences. For women in my position, cultural and societal norms can feel oppressive. I know every one of us struggles — I’m an empathic creature — but this is a beast that has to broken down and overcome so we can all become better.

On the beauty in our own backyard:

This is going to sound like a strongly anti-millenial statement so brace yourself. Do you want to grip the sand? (Laughs)

Growing up in Boston I know a lot of people that never leave their hometown. I was lucky enough to travel when I was young -- you know, before everyone was afraid of everyone else. Now I feel like my constant joke to myself when I’m sitting out here surfing is that I don’t need to buy a plane ticket anywhere.

Of course we all should see other cultures and see the world but not because it’s trendy.  See it because it’s a good thing to do for perspective and to better understand who you are.

The reason I celebrate local is, number one -- it’s practical. We don’t have that much money. And number two -- here we are, and there’s an abundance of stories here. I am forever finding new reasons to fall back in love with California.

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Yes, I think it’d be great to take people to a far-off land and shoot something, but I am constantly lit up and lifted up by the people around me, in close proximity.

On aliveness:

I am so alive. And compulsive. I’m really compulsive.

Just to get real for a second -- being alive is an interesting thing for me because I wasn’t born into the best situation.

I have asthma (chronic lung disease) and I had all these illnesses as a kid and I still have them. I learned that regardless of those things that you think might stop you or keep you from doing something -- you can still do it. You should still do it.

I was a competitive distance runner and bike racer before I got heaving into surfing. Being hospitalized and unable to breathe over and over again might have something to do with the fight in me. So, kids, if you have asthma, please make sure you keep it under control and take your meds! It could very well save your life.

On moving on from a creative project:

Okay I’m going to admit something and I don’t know if I’ve ever said this before. I love conceptualizing and making and editing films. I do feel like it’s exhilarating, but maybe I lied a little on social media because when my projects are done, I walk away quickly. I actually do become disengaged -- not with the subject matter or its audiences -- but what I mean is my head is not in that space at all anymore. I’m genuinely on to the next.

My head and my mind and all of myself is in the project while it’s happening, but as soon as it’s done I want to jump into what’s next. I know that’s the most important time to hang on though because that’s when people are seeing it and reacting to it and I have to listen. So I do -- I listen and observe, but in terms of feeling that sense of exhilaration, I actually wish I could enjoy it more. Maybe I should go back and write something new or post something that says, “I lie on Instagram.” (Laughs)

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I put a lot of pressure on myself to get to the next thing and move to the next point. So if I have to work on anything, it would be really being in the moment more.

I’m always rushing ahead. Always always always. Ugh, I’m so sick of myself sometimes. (Laughs) I get so sick of me but I have to be gentle, you know? Amy Caron, bless her heart, recently looked me in the eye and said, “Beth, take it easy and don’t be so hard on yourself”. Other people have probably said that to me a hundred times. But at that moment, I heard the message.

On searching:

Part of the problem, and I say this like I’m the only one in the world to deal with this, is that I’m overly sensitive. I feel lonely a lot.

I think a lot of people feel lonely because we’re all seeking. And in seeking is loneliness. We’re all trying to find that perfect spot. We’re all seeking what’s comfortable but life isn’t really that comfortable most of the time. What I’m realizing now is that this is it and there’s no playbook for it.

I could read all the spiritual Instagram posts but none of that is soothing for me. That’s the problem. There’s no way to soothe any of the demons inside. There’s no way to answer all of the questions. I could read “Eat, Pray, Love” and the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and all the other trendy ways to become “more enlightened,” but it’s not the way I am or who I am. It’s just not.

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I was born and raised by second and third-generation immigrants from Poland and Ireland who lived in Boston. It’s hard knocks and you get used to that. Coming to California made me a little freer to explore and not be constrained by some of the really, really tight, tough and super judgmental structures that I grew up with. I’ve been so far out of my comfort zone for so long that I feel like I’m just in a different realm of my life right now.

I actually don’t know where it’s going to take me and that’s scary as shit as a woman in her late 40s. It’s also unconventional and it scares my family. I know that and I feel badly about that in a lot of ways, but if I lived any other way I’m afraid I might be much more miserable.

On advice for young women:

I think the advice has to be that there’s a lot of stories that might scare younger women about a male environment being hostile or being unfriendly, and it definitely can be. But also, any situation can be hostile or unfriendly. Surprisingly and disappointingly, the most hostile situations I’ve been in have actually been with women.

The beauty of being a young person now is that you have an iPhone, meaning you have the ability to learn these stories, do filmmaking and put it out there. The medium and the means to producing and distributing whatever it is you’re concerned about is so available now and that never used to be the case.

I appreciate that about technology now and the way media works. It’s a democratization of sorts, and it’s changing everything.

Mia Bolton