SWELL GUYS: Clockwise from top left: Darryl 'Flea' Virostko, Jason 'Ratboy' Collins, Shawn 'Barney' Barron and filmmaker Josh Pomer.
A Westside Story
A homegrown filmmaker tells the sordid tale of Santa Cruz's surf kings
By Curtis Cartier
THOUGH he didn't have a title for it at the time, Joshua Pomer started filming The Westsiders when he was 16 years old. It was the late 1980s, and, armed with a bulky video camera he borrowed from Santa Cruz High, the teenaged Pomer took in his immediate surroundings: Steamer Lane, the Circles neighborhood and the surf-centered antics of his ragtag group of friends. Over the years, Darryl "Flea" Virostko, Shawn "Barney" Barron and Jason "Ratboy" Collins—Pomer's cast and crew—became celebrated pro surfers. Pomer, meanwhile, acquired progressively fancier cameras. What happened in the interim has less to do with surfing or filmmaking than with the trials of life and the bonds of friendship. It also forms the backbone of Pomer's documentary, which premieres Saturday, May 8, at the Riverfront Twin Cinema at 6:30pm as part of the Santa Cruz Film Festival.
"I was a movie addict from a very young age," says the baby-faced, 37-year-old Pomer in classic California slowspeak. "Once I had the camera, my friends, they just became my cast. I was thinking about making this movie way back then. It's like in the 1800s people used to see their lives in a novel. These days, we see our lives like movies."
The film tells the story of Flea, Barney and Ratboy, perhaps the most notable of a sprawling group of teens and young adults who grew up spending more time on the waves of Steamer Lane and Cowell's than at home or at school. Death and drugs stain the early lives of each of the film's protagonists, and much of the movie is spent watching them grapple with their own addictions and losses. There are glorious moments for the trio with triumphant surf contest victories, oversized checks, magazine cover shots and sponsored world tours. There are also gut-wrenching falls from grace as the surfers battle their many demons.
For Barron, a tall, curly-haired artist who suffers from often-severe bipolar disorder and comes across as the group's emotional anchor, it's an accurate description of a huge chunk of his life. It's also a look into how the Westside "used to be."
"The first time I watched the movie, it was amazing and kind of hard to do. It's like looking through a fast-moving window into your own life," he says. Barron grows emotional when he brings up Carl Reimer, the 19-year-old Westside surfer who was shot and killed on April 23, hours after landing his first backside 360 at the Lane. "It's just so sad, you know? In my day, if people wanted to fight, they went somewhere and fought it out—not this shooting people shit.
It's a new world, I guess."
Barron's Westside, however, was no picnic, according to the film. Drugs abounded, fights were constant and an established pecking order meant that young surfers had to prove themselves both in and out of the water if they wanted to be welcome in the neighborhood. In the film, no one embodies the harshness of the scene more than villain-sage Vince Collier. Dubbed the "Godfather of the Westside," Collier is a expletive-hurling beast of a man who, in voice-overs and interviews, candidly recounts how, when he wasn't lording over the surfer pack like the ultimate alpha wolf, he would run drugs for motorcycle gangs and torture debt-owing men in the forest. Pomer says he grew up terrified of Collier, a sentiment the other surfers echo, but that the man showed tough love and drove the group to surf harder and more than the rest of Steamer Lane's hordes while using an iron fist to instill an unshakable code of loyalty among them.
"No one really knew what Vince did when he wasn't with all of us," says Pomer. "When he opened up for the film, all of us were like 'Whoa.' I think he comes out as being pretty scary, but also having a good heart."
When the credits roll on Pomer's opus, the audience hasn't witnessed a standard surf flick with its wide-angle tube shots, big airs and hot indie soundtrack—though each of those features exists in the film (Pearl Jam's Mike McCready wrote the bulk of its tunes). Instead, they've seen a classic tale of friendship trumping adversity. And for Santa Cruzans, they've been given an essential piece of the puzzle of the city's unique makeup.
"I think the three surfers tell us a lot about Santa Cruz," says Pomer. "Maybe they'll tell people about themselves, too."
THE WESTSIDERS screens as part of the Santa Cruz Film Fest on Saturday, May 8, at 6:30pm, and Monday, May 10, at 11:30am at the Riverfront Twin Cinema, 155 S. River St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $9, available at www.ticketweb.com and at the door. For more info visit www.thewestsiders.com. For a complete SCFF schedule visit www.scfilmfest.org.
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