Meet the Filmmaker Behind the All-Female Big Wave Film 'SheChange'
We recently caught up with Sachi Cunningham, the filmmaker behind the upcoming, all-female big wave surfing film, "SheChange." Sachi is a long-time filmmaker, and her latest project puts her in front of some of the biggest swells on the planet. The feature-length documentary dives into the world of women's big wave surfing and a fight for equality in one of the most dangerous sports on earth.
While Sachi might not be featured for riding these giants, her certified-badass status for filming from the lineup and battling Mother Nature to get the shot is no joke. We sat down with the lady behind the lens to get the scoop on SheChange.
GoPro: Before we discuss SheChange, can you tell us a little about yourself, and your journey in becoming a female filmmaker?
Sachi Cunningham: I started working in film from my first internship as a camera assistant at a public television station in Pittsburgh while in high school almost 30 years ago. I went on to work in feature film and on commercial productions in LA and NYC, assisting actress Demi Moore and director Barry Levinson, among other production jobs on set, in development and post-production. I went on to University of California, Berkeley, to study documentary filmmaking, after which I worked on staff at PBS Frontline and the LA Times where I produced, shot and edited over 200 short films.
Today, I continue to freelance as a director/DP/producer, editor and photographer for various documentary and commercial films while teaching multimedia journalism as a tenured-track faculty at San Francisco State University. The teaching job allows me to concentrate on passion projects like SheChange.
GP: SheChange is about women breaking into the sport of big wave surfing. Can you tell us a little more about the film itself, and the history of women participating in the sport?
SC: The film follows four of the best female big wave surfers in the world: two-time Big Wave World Champion Paige Alms from Maui, XXL Barrel of the Year winner Keala Kennelly from Oahu, XXL Women's Performance of the Year winner Andrea Möller from Maui, and Nelscott Reef and Puerto Escondido Cup champion Bianca Valenti from San Francisco. These athletes formed the Committee for Equity in Women's Surfing along with San Mateo Harbor Commissioner Sabrina Brennan and attorney Karen Tynan to advocate for a spot for women in the Mavericks competition and equal pay.
It has been a four year journey that was victorious this fall when the WSL announced that there would not only be two women's heats in the contest, but that the prize purse would be equal to the men, not only for the Mavericks contest, but for all World Surf League contest globally. This made the WSL the first U.S.-based sports league in history to pay their male and female athletes equally. The film chronicles this journey and the friendships that these women have forged along the way while also diving into the personal histories that drive these women to charge for change.
GP: How did you become involved in this project, and why do want to tell this story?
SC: I've followed the sport of big wave surfing since 2001 as a photographer and filmmaker.
In 2010, I made a film about the men of big wave surfing for the LA Times called "Chasing the Swell." Around then, women started to show up on the scene in increasing numbers, and for the last four years, I've worked closely with Bianca Valenti in San Francisco. In 2014, there was an invitational event for women at Mavericks where I had the opportunity to shoot photos and video of these women in the water and get to know them better. I knew these four women [Paige, Keala, Andrea and Bianca] possessed something special, so I started following them with my camera.
I've always wanted to tell stories about women in surfing because I want to encourage other women to feel supported in pursuing the sport, which is still very male dominated. It has provided so much joy and depth to my life personally, so part of why I want to tell this story is to encourage other women to get in the water so that they too can enjoy and help conserve this precious resource.
The other reason I want to tell the story is because it is an incredible story of female empowerment. It is a story of women unapologetically asking for what they want and working together to create change that ultimately benefits the sport and enriches us all as a whole.
GP: What has been the highest point in your filmmaking journey with SheChange? What has been the lowest? How do you overcome the challenges?
SC: The cherry has been witnessing women's activism create equal pay across all World Surf League contests. The pit has been the constant fundraising needed to make the film. But pits become seeds and seeds become trees, so hopefully this support from GoPro for a Cause to raise awareness about the project will help to make money grow on those trees!
GP: What are you hoping to accomplish with this film?
SC: I would like this film to cement these women's stories in history and inspire all young girls and boys to realize that anything is possible if they put their mind to it and work together to create change. I would also like audiences of any gender fluidity to be mesmerized by these remarkable, brave game changers' exploits in and out of the water and to have a blueprint for activism to work with in the future.
GP: When does SheChange release, and where can people find out more information in the meantime?
SC: SheChange will release once the funding to make the film is secured. I am still actively seeking production partnerships, so readers, please consider donating directly to the film through the link on our site and please forward this to anyone who might be interested in bringing this film to the finish line! You can find more information at shechangethefilm.com and follow us on Instagram @shechangethefilm and on Facebook at SheChange The Film.
GP: Lastly, how does it feel to be a woman today? If you could tell women everywhere one thing, what would you share?
SC: The World Bank just released a report that only six of 187 economies studied around the world have equal legal rights for women and men. Being a woman today feels like an uphill battle much of the time, but I would say to women that you can't give up. Ask for what you want and don't think twice about asking for it again and again. Tribes with a wide range of individuals adapt best to the world around them. We need diversity for the survival of the human species. Men must value our power and advocate for us as much as we do if we are all going to thrive.