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'Waterman' tells the story of Hawaiian surf legend Duke Kahanamoku

Duane DeSoto surfing on a replica of Duke Kahanamoku's longboard. Photo courtesy of Sidewinder Films.
Duane DeSoto surfing on a replica of Duke Kahanamoku's longboard. Photo courtesy of Sidewinder Films.

Duke Kahanamoku is known as the father of modern surfing, but he was also an Olympic swimmer who helped revolutionize the sport by introducing the flutter kick. 

A new documentary, Waterman, tells the story of the Hawaiian athlete using archival footage, interviews with renowned surfers and dramatizations of key moments in Kahanamoku's life. The film screens at the Florida Surf Film Festival in New Smyrna Beach this weekend.

Director Isaac Halasima and film festival executive director Kevin Miller join Intersection for a conversation about bringing the story of Duke Kahanamoku to the big screen.

Halasima says his uncle created the statue of Kahanamoku that stands at Waikiki.

"Because of that connection, I grew up with the story of Duke. And I'd always known it. And one of the things, as my career took off in directing that my uncle had suggested as I got older was to try to tell the story of Duke," says Halasima.

The Waikiki statue is not the only monument to Kahanamoku: there's also one on the mainland US, and others in New Zealand and Australia.

"People forget the US was not known as a swimming country before Duke Kahanamoku, but this country that he represented, barely even knows him nowadays, he's barely coming up in conversations. And so it's one of the questions I like to start off with... like, how many American athletes do you know that have statues and monuments dedicated to them in three different countries?"

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Duke Kahanamoku at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. Kahanamoku won gold in the 100 m. freestyle in Stockholm. He would also win gold and silver medals in 1920 in Antwerp and 1924 in Paris. Photo credit: T. DeLaVega Family Collection[/caption]

Halasima says filming the e-enactments with surfer Duane DeSoto in Makaha helped connect the film crew with actor Jason Momoa, who narrates the film.

"What are the odds that you'd be telling the story of, in my opinion, one of the most important Polynesians in history, but he was a Hawaiian, and one of the most famous Hollywood stars right now is a Hawaiian? The timing's unreal for something like this to happen."

"To see the recreation and to imagine what Duke was actually doing with that equipment, just from a technical standpoint, you know, as a surfer, I thought that was pretty impressive," says Miller.

He adds the story about Kahanamoku's career in movies may also catch people by surprise.

"I had no idea that his presence in Hollywood was such a big deal. And he kind of went from, you know, an Olympic athlete to a major presence in Hollywood for a while."

Halasima says Kahanamoku deserves a place in US sporting history alongside the likes of Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Jim Thorpe.

"Duke should be at the center of that conversation with all of them. Because he really did break through color barriers," says Halasima.

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Duke Kahanamoku in Hollywood. Photo credit: The Paragon Agency.[/caption]

He says Kahanamoku broke barriers in show business too.

"You've got The Rock, you've got Jason [Momoa], you've got Cliff Curtis, Taika Waititi, all these Polynesians that are all over Hollywood and to know that the first was Duke, you know, that he was the one breaking those lines at a time when they would rather paint somebody a different color than hire them, here was Duke in that era, showing up in movies and movie posters, because he was that likable, in a time period when racism was rampant."