IN THE APPARENTLY inexhaustible supply of niche documentary subjects—the spelling bee dweebs of Spellbound, the drag queen sci-fi folk singer of Trekkies—the Papua New Guinean surfers of Splinters might be the niche-iest of them all. Sometime in the 1980s, the story goes, a visiting white pilot left a surfboard in Vanimo, one of the remote villages in the already-remote country of Papua New Guinea. Ever since, surfing's been a growing part of life in Vanimo; as Splinters begins, the village is preparing to host Papua New Guinea's inaugural national surfing competition.
For Papua New Guinea's surfers, the chance of turning pro means achieving more than they ever could in impoverished villages like Vanimo. For Papua New Guinea as a country, the potential of surfing tourism offers similar opportunities on a far larger scale. So there's ambition here, and optimism, but also some pretty big unknowns—chiefly what will inevitably happen when, as one Vanimo resident notes, "The new changing world meets the slow changing cultures of Papua New Guinea."
In other words, poverty, violence, and tradition clash with the excitement and good vibes of surfing. There are conflicts and consequences—between different ways of life, between rival surf clubs, between normal people trying to scrape by. While it's too scattered to examine any one of these elements in depth—sometimes the film feels like a documentary about Papua New Guinean life that's interrupted by hippie surfing montages, at others it feels like a surf video interspersed with jarring glimpses of day-to-day life in Papua New Guinea—Splinters captures enough of these disparate but related elements that it's continually interesting, regardless of whether you're interested in surfing, or Papua New Guinea, or (as has to be the case for at least a few people out there) both.