Riding the waves of resilience in UNCLE BULLY’S SURF SKOOL

UNCLE BULLY’S SURF SKOOL was one of the most anticipated films of HIFF 43. Directed by Todd Soliday and Leah Washawski, the uplifting documentary features Bull Kotter, a surf instructor, affectionately known as “Uncle Bully”. Raised in Maui, Bully’s passion for surf education and community development in Maui is a guiding light for youth during dark times such as the COVID-19 pandemic and most recently the Lahaina fires.

The film opens with devastating aerial footage of the remains of Lahaina after the deadly wildfires in early August 2023, and a quote from Uncle Bully himself: “Everything good that’s happened in your life started with a struggle.” This is a fitting lead into the evolved nature of the film’s meaning and purpose. Originally, the film was shot to highlight Kotter’s contribution to his community and unique response to the 2020 global pandemic and economic collapse. At the time, tourism was shut down and kids were out of school, so Bully took the initiative to pour into the youth when they needed it the most through none other than surfing. However, when tragedy struck in his hometown of Lahaina, the production team quickly pivoted in true documentary style and continued the documentation of the historic town in the aftermath of the fires and the community’s efforts to recover after massive loss.

No matter their status or background, all are welcome at Uncle Bully’s Surf Skool. Bully describes the beach as a place where “Everyone can be equal” and “Kids can just be kids”. When COVID-19 shut everything down, he observed a spike in youth homelessness. To navigate the challenges brought on by the pandemic, Bully began teaching socially distanced surf school. He speaks of the importance of fostering community with aloha and surf etiquette. When approaching the art of surfing, he often emphasizes the mind-body connection in his lessons.

A beautiful moment is when the young surfers venture into the ocean. The camera placement on the front of their surfboard provides an inspiring perspective of children catching waves and finding their flow amongst massive coral reefs. Alongside them is their trusty instructor encouraging them to breathe and calm their mind before becoming one with the water. This approach helps them release fear and get out of their comfort zone, no matter how choppy the waters are.

The film carefully weaves together time capsule footage of Front Street and areas of Lahaina before tragedy struck. It unexpectedly becomes a visual archive of Lahaina’s pre- and post-wildfire landscape. The filmmaking team’s quick response not only captures the aftermath of the disaster, but also the kuleana (shared responsibility) that brings the community together. The beating heart of Lahaina is palpable in the final scene of the community paddle out for victims of the wildfire. Not long after the fires, Uncle Bully’s Surf Skool is also back in the water reminding all to stay level-headed when approaching the torrential waves of life.

Olivia Trice (She/Her) is a multi-hyphenate producer and force to be reckoned with. She is a graduate of Hawaii Pacific University with a BFA in Multimedia Cinematic Production & Screenwriting. With 5 years of TV/Film production experience under her belt, Olivia is credited for her work on GODZILLA VS. KONG, HAWAII FIVE-O, MAGNUM P.I., and AMERICAN IDOL. As a former ambassador of the Community & Teen’s department at Instagram, she has also spent much of her development online translating those connections into real-life impacts and business collaborations. While her artistic expression has evolved to span multi-forms of digital media, Olivia’s passions remain photography, experimental filmmaking, and storytelling through aerial dance/improvisation. As of this year, Olivia is a Wahine in Film Lab Fellow with Hawaiʻi Women in Filmmaking.

The HIFF ONLINE CREATIVES & CRITICS IMMERSIVE (HOCCI) program supports sustainable film criticism in Hawai‘i through mentorship and paid career opportunities. The mission of HOCCI is to broaden diversity in film criticism across the Pacific region and use influencer branding strategies to spark career opportunities in Hawai’i, not be hampered by oceans, state borders and distance, because geography is no longer a barrier. The 2023 HOCCI is supported by Critical Minded, a grant-making and learning initiative that supports cultural critics of color in the United States.


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