UNCLE BULLY’S SURF SKOOL represents Maui’s resilience

Community leaders are unsung heroes. Oftentimes, they are unfortunately left unrecognized by those outside of their sphere of influence, no matter how much good they contribute. Bull Kotter, lovingly known as Uncle Bully, is one of Maui’s heroes, and the documentary UNCLE BULLY’S SURF SKOOL tells his story so that his goodwill may never be forgotten.

Uncle Bully is the founder of Bully’s Surf School, where kids can learn to surf and become a part of a healthy environment. This institution was something Bully created so children could participate in an activity that not only could give them joy and excitement, but would keep them off of the streets and away from drugs. It’s a noble goal that stems from his own past. The film explains that as a child, Bully discovered the ocean and his love for surfing. When he started taking drugs later in his life, he knew it was something that he needed to quit to become a better, healthier person. Surfing was what helped Uncle Bully heal and become the inspiration that he is today. So not only is this surf school a way to continue surfing for himself and his way of thanking the ocean, but Uncle Bully is using his life experience to help children walk down a path of happiness and good health.

Bully doesn’t just say all of these wonderful things to the audience as a talking head, we are shown his thoughtful actions too. A large portion of the film is dedicated to showing Uncle Bully helping his students in the water while surfing. His steady hand often guides the children on their boards as his reassuring words lift them up. The beautiful, naturalistic footage captures the wonder of surfing and the love between Bully and his students, which made me feel euphoric and in awe while watching the film. But Bully doesn’t only care about his students in the water. He is shown picking up some kids to go to practice, and searches the island when one of them hasn’t shown up to practice for a few days. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, he does what he can to help students further their education by teaching them basic writing. His compassion knows no bounds, and it’s impossible not to be moved by Uncle Bully’s efforts.

The defining trait that follows Uncle Bully throughout his entire life, from his healing from substance abuse to his work with the school, is resilience. Bully continues to fight forward no matter what obstacles lie in his path, and he does it with the optimism that things will get better. I can think of no greater hero to represent Maui, and specifically Lahaina, in these times of hardship. As Maui continues to look forward and rebuild after the devastating wildfire, the community has never stood together stronger than they are now. Uncle Bully and his story is a shining example of how strong Maui is. His resilience is a lesson to all to continue moving forward, no matter how challenging it may be.

After the wildfire, Uncle Bully continues to take care of the children within his community and run his surf school. He aims to give children an escape, a time and place where they don’t have to think about the tragedy and heartbreak they were put through. He continues to give back to the people of Maui in the way he knows best: by caring for kids. If he can continue moving forward and stay strong, just imagine how strong Maui is standing together.

Devin Hung is currently a sophomore majoring in Creative Media at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. He was selected last year to be a mentee in HIFF’s Online Creators and Critics Immersive where he wrote articles on some of the films present, and has written movie reviews since working for his high school’s newspaper. He aims to one day become a film critic with an audience to introduce films of varying origins and genres to, as well as provide himself with an outlet to channel his love of film. When he isn’t watching movies or doing his schoolwork, he enjoys spending his time writing, spending time with his friends, and religiously updating his Oscar predictions.

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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