Surf MoviesAncient Myths and Modern Discoveries – The Black Sea’s Gold
There’s a power outage in Persembe. Clint Davis knows a café with a generator though, so has run down the hill from where he is staying to jump onto our video call. It’s a good few years since we’ve spoken, but there he is, sipping tea in a café on the edge of the Black Sea in the far east of Turkey, about to tell me about the surf film project that he’s been working on there.
I first met Clint, briefly, in the UAE perhaps a decade ago. I was on an extended stopover spending a few days visiting friends who I’d asked to take me on a surf mission down to Oman. We shared mutual friends and an enthusiasm for photography and surf travel, so kept vaguely in touch in the manner of most modern day social media connections. Recently, sparked by several eye-popping, mysterious, and fleeting stories on his Instagram, I messaged him to ask where on earth he is and what he’s up to. It turns out that he was in Turkey, and he’s been working on something rather special.
“I had moved to the Netherlands about three years ago, and my time there was extended because of the pandemic. I had been visiting Turkey quite frequently and heard about people surfing there. It piqued my curiosity so I started digging, searching hashtags and so on to see what I could find. I knew that there were good waves in the Mediterranean – I have a friend who has helped pioneer surfing in Lebanon – and Turkey has a long coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. But it turns out that there are also waves and a history of wave riding in the Black Sea. This was about a year and a half ago.”
With his filmmaking work on pause due to the global pandemic, Clint suddenly had the time to pursue this story. “I’ve always loved travel and the search for waves in places where there shouldn’t really be surf” he tells me, “And I grew up loving films like Indiana Jones. It felt like I’d been waiting my whole life for this project.” I can’t think of many people better equipped to pursue it, from his international ex-pat upbringing, his small sea experience surfing in the Middle East and the Netherlands, to his eye as a photographer and storytelling experience as a filmmaker.
Clint found out that a friend of a friend was a surfer from Turkey running a hotel in Sri Lanka. He was put in touch with Deniz Toprak, and this connection put rockets onto his research.
“There’s been a small surf community in Istanbul since about 2015,” Clint recounts down the line. “There are three or so surf schools near there, on the shores of the Black Sea. But heading east is largely uncharted and it’s still possible to find new breaks. Deniz is from a coastal town called Persembe, almost 900km east of Istanbul on the southern shore of the Black Sea”. At this point, I open a new tab and start googling. I count myself as having a pretty good grasp of geography, but it suddenly strikes me that perhaps this is limited to “surfable” coastlines and a view of the world developed by my Western upbringing and education. I’ve been to Istanbul, but Turkey is an enormous nation stretching south and east of its headline city. I certainly couldn’t draw you a map. Persembe sits on a small peninsula jutting north into the Black Sea. It’s closer to the border with Georgia to the east, or to war-torn Syria to the south, than it is to Istanbul.
Deniz had returned home from Sri Lanka, enamoured with surfing and determined to use his newfound passion to have a positive impact on his hometown. He was more than happy to have Clint tell the story of the area’s surf.
“What Deniz has done here is quite incredible. There’s been a huge amount of progress in a really short time. Having grown up in the fledgling Middle Eastern surf scene, I’d say that what took fifteen years to archive in places like in Dubai he’s managed in two years. The town had largely turned its back on the sea, but now there is a school with their own surf club and loads of kids getting into surfing.”
Clint travelled to Turkey as soon as restrictions eased, to meet Deniz. They set off on a Black Sea road trip, and ended up in Ordu, near to Persembe where Deniz’s family is from: “There were no waves. We backtracked and went west a bit, but got skunked again. The next day there was swell, so we set out again. We went out to a headland, turned a corner and I saw this slab break. It was sketchy, pretty much going dry on the peak, but beautiful. A proper wave. I’ve only ever seen it that good three times. The headland is Yason Burnu, or Cape Jason, and is steeped in ancient mythology and the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. I thought: “THIS, is the story.” He titled his film Vona, for the ancient Greek name for the town of Persembe.
Cape Jason is named after the protagonist of the ancient Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece – one of the oldest examples of the hero’s quest storyline. In the story, on their way back from “claiming” the golden fleece from King Aeetes of Colchis (modern-day western Georgia, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea), Zeus sends a series of storms at the Argonauts’ ship the Argo, as punishment for one of their many questionable acts (Jason and the Argonauts is a classic Greek tragedy featuring betrayal and vengeance of epic proportions). Legend has it that the Argonauts found shelter from the terrible wind and waves behind this headland, and sat out the storm before continuing on their way back to Iolcus with the Golden Fleece. A former church dating back to 1868 stands on the cape, apparently on the site of an ancient temple celebrating Jason and the Argonauts. This is an area where myth and history abound and intertwine, and the storms and waves that the Argonauts sheltered from still hit these shores and produce surfable waves.
“The reef that the slab wave now named “the island” are the remains of an ancient boat building hard, where boats were hauled out of the water and propped up on stilts to be repaired” Clint explains. “There are all of these man-made holes in the rock where the stilts stood. And this isn’t unique, in Turkey,” he continues, with ancient ruins scattered around the country’s two coasts with the potential for fun waves breaking over ancient history.
Clint had almost all of the elements needed for a classic surf adventure documentary. He just needed a surfer capable of showing the waves that Deniz and he had found in their best light. His friend Ali in Lebanon connected him with Spanish surf adventurer Kepa Acero, and he reached out to him. Kepa was interested, but couldn’t commit much time. Like any small sea surf spot, the windows for waves are narrow and arrive at short notice. There was no guarantee that Kepa’s time with them would coincide with a swell, but they had to give it a shot.
Much like Clint’s first experience of the area, Kepa’s trip was one of searching. Scoring epic surf was in no way guaranteed. But then, that’s not what searching for and surfing new waves in “off the surf map” locations is all about, and it’s a scenario that Kepa’s well used to.
“We didn’t score Cape Jason. But we found other waves. There are tons of rivermouths around there and Kepa got good waves at a couple. Not perfect, but enough to show that there are waves and potential here. Enough to not give everything away and set up the next chapter in the story of surfing here.”
Not being guaranteed good waves is a double-edged sword for surf filmmakers; surf films need waves, but if there is an abundance of perfect waves then that might be all that features. Those sorts of surf films are all well and good, but surf films that double as short documentaries including more than just the riding of waves are often more engaging for broader audiences. During Kepa’s strike mission the small crew searched tirelessly for surf, in the process touring the ancient boat-building dock with a local historian, visiting the church at Cape Jason, sampling the local delicacy of hazelnuts when pausing at a local family’s home for tea, touring the market, and visiting a local boat builders’ workshop to glean their seafaring wisdom.
Through the course of filming, and during Clint’s multiple extended visits to the area, countless cups of tea (çay, pronounced like chai) were drunk; the legendary Turkish hospitality that stems from the belief in Turkey that visitors should be treated as guests sent by God has been one of Clint’s abiding takeaways. As we talk about this film, Vona, and the other projects that have developed out of his time in Turkey, whilst Clint sits in a café drinking tea into the evening, his fondness for this place is obvious, as is his respect for Deniz: “Deniz has been the producer on this film. His energy and connections have brought so much to the project, all driven by his desire to develop surfing in his hometown and share the stoke with its people. He discovered surfing and has brought it back with him. What he’s achieved here in just a couple of years is really amazing.”
This desire to nurture the local surf community means that, rather than Clint’s film being produced purely as a surf film for a surfing audience, a Turkish language version is also being produced for the nation’s view on demand platforms. They’ve had support from the local government, who are interested to see what the development of surfing in the region could do, both for the local community and perhaps even in attracting visitors to the area. Over our patchy connection to the Turkish tea shop that he’s sat in, I get the distinct impression that he’s taken this story that he’d waited his whole life for, and run with it. For somebody who grew up watching Indiana Jones and who has travelled the world as an adult surfing and shooting photos and film, this is a “ticks all boxes” opportunity. Just as Jason took the Golden Fleece from the coast of the Black Sea west to the world, so have Deniz and Clint found their own gold to share with the surf world.
To keep up to date with the latest information on where you can watch Vona, follow @vonamovie on Instagram.
12-14 May 2022: Cold Hawaii Surf & Film Festival, Klitmøller, Denmark
22-31 July 2022: Portuguese Surf Film Festival, Ericeira, Portugal