The Simple Life with Filmmaker Ishka Folkwell

Byron-based filmmaker Ishka Folkwell makes cinematic surf films that almost double as travel documentaries, weaving loose narratives about nature, culture, and lifestyle while simultaneously capturing some perfect waves.

Over the years, he’s collaborated with childhood friend and twin fin finesser Torren Martyn on a bunch of incredible projects, including last year’s Thank You Mother, a spectacular ode to the simple life featuring narration by the legendary Alby Falzon. Last month, Folkwell and Martyn released Northern Reaches, a short film documenting their second (albeit significantly colder) trip to Iceland in search of near frozen waves. Now, while most of the world’s in lockdown, they’re getting ready to release their next surf-flick-meets-adventure-film documenting an ambitious three-month camping journey across New Zealand on motorbikes.

Ishka Folkwell and Torren Martyn in NZ.

Finding Folkwell on home soil for long enough to arrange a chat is no easy feat (our lengthy email chain peppered with itineraries dating back to January proves as much), but with borders closed, we managed to get him on the horn to discuss past projects, current edits, and future releases.

Hey Ishka! First things first, when did you start shooting photography and making films?

I first got into photography through my mum. She was a photographer, and my bedroom growing up sort of doubled as her darkroom. Then I got into travelling while I was in school and after school and would always have a camera and take portraits of people and different cultures and landscapes. As I got a little bit older, I started taking photos of friends surfing, and that developed into people wanting to get filmed, and I started doing that as a bit of a hobby. Luckily enough, a few of my friends are sponsored surfers, so I had the opportunity to go on trips with them to make little films, and then it really just developed from there.

Do you have any major influences when it comes to your work?

Growing up, as far as surf filmmakers go, I really enjoyed Taylor Steele’s films. They had a bit more of a narrative and just felt different because he tried to do a little more than just show good surfing and aesthetically his films are really pleasing. That’s one of the main things for me—capturing beauty wherever it is and also trying to tell a story, even if there isn’t a literal narrative to the film, I try to create one through images and music.

I was going to say, your films are just as much about travel, nature, and surfing as a lifestyle rather than a sport. I wouldn’t really class them as surf films in the traditional sense.

Yeah, totally, especially in this day and age where the internet’s so saturated with surf clips and everyone’s got such a short attention span—including myself—I feel like you sort of have to add something other than just surfing to draw people in and keep them engaged. Also, there’re only so many surf clips before you start to get bored of it yourself as well, and after a while you don’t really feel like you’re pushing yourself or creating anything different. It’s important to try to appeal to people who don’t necessarily care about surfing as well, so more or less everyone can get something from the film, whether it’s the music, or just the landscapes or the story.

I wanted to talk a bit about your film, Thank You Mother. Pretty amazing crew of people working together on it, including Torren Martyn, Simon Jones, and Alby Falzon. How did the project come about?

Torren and I had been working together for quite a while, and that was shortly after he made a pretty big transition as far as his approach to surfing. He grew up on the same path as most surfers do—competitively and riding performance shortboards and all of that—and then he basically discovered Simon Jones’ surfboards, Morning of the Earth Surfboards, and started riding his boards. They made him surf very differently to how he did before because they’re more retro-inspired boards, less high performance and more like you’ve gotta let the wave dictate how you’re going to surf it, and I think that really complemented Torren’s surfing and is a huge part of the reason why he has been successful and why he appeals to people because he’s a bit different. So, that’s how Simon got involved in the film, and he was the one who had the connection with Alby Falzon who made the film Morning of the Earth, which is basically the most iconic Australian surf film to date.

What’s he like?

He’s such a classic character—he very much embodies the whole Morning of the Earth message of living simply. He’s got to be one of the happiest, most content people I’ve ever met, he just sees goodness in every single situation and loves a good laugh. Need Essentials are our biggest supporters and support the majority of our films, and founder Ryan Scanlon has the exact same mentality around living a simple lifestyle and not taking more than you need. So we all sort of had this similar view on what it means to be ‘successful’ or what ‘success’ meant to us, and it was just this basic view of less is more. That sort of developed into Thank You Mother, where we sat down with Alby and had a chat to him and asked him a bunch of questions and he just went off on these big tangents where sometimes he might not have even answered the question we asked but somehow it ended up being way better than what we asked anyway. He’s so full of wisdom that we just thought it’d be silly not to share that with the world. We also worked with an amazing musician, Nick Bampton, who did the original soundtrack.

How did you guys decide on the locations?

Simon, Torren and I were talking about what would be the best waves to suit Simon’s boards and Torren’s surfing and it always comes back to long right-hand point breaks, and J-Bay in South Africa is arguably the best right-hand point break in the world. None of us had ever been and had always dreamt of it, so that’s how we decided on South Africa, and it was really cool because Simon and his son came with us on the trip and we just perched up there in a little house for a month and were lucky enough to get a bunch of really good swells. There’s a bonus section at the end of the film that’s at Desert Point in Indonesia. We felt like after watching half an hour of endless right-hand points it’d be sort of nice to finish on a left, and probably the best left-hander in the world—it’s actually Torren’s favourite wave.

You also just released a short film with Torren in Iceland. How cold were you?

Yeah, it was really cold. We’d actually been once before a couple of years ago, but it was just coming into winter and while there was still snow on the beach and it was definitely cold, this time we went in February and it was significantly colder. I think getting down to minus 15 Celsius and the water was two or three degrees, so just above freezing point.

You’re working on a film right now from a three-month motorbike/surf trip through New Zealand. Can you talk a bit about that?

Yeah, so about two years ago now, Torren and I spent three months on motorbikes in New Zealand. We did the North and South islands, and it was autumn going into winter, so it wasn’t freezing, but obviously on the bikes you’re pretty exposed to any weather you encounter. So it definitely had its challenges and I guess the film is almost more about the trip itself and those challenges and what it’s like camping for three months while riding around looking for waves. It’s different to any films we’ve ever done, it’s more of an adventure documentary than a surf film. I mean, surfing still drives it, but choosing motorbikes as our mode of transport, we knew it was going to be a challenge and we knew that would likely make for a better film, too.

Editing must be a huge job when you’ve got three months’ worth of footage to work through, I bet?

Yeah, absolutely, that’s why it’s taken us, y’know, two years to put this one from New Zealand together, but we’ve obviously been working on a lot of other projects in the meantime, so it can go for a couple of months at a time where it’s put to the side. I guess it’s also been a huge learning curve for us because it’s gonna be an hour long and we’ve tried to give it a lit more structure to tell a story and keep people engaged so it’s a lot more work. But it’s getting really close, and we’re really excited to release it.

You can check out more of Ishka’s work here.


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