Recently, Ben Weiland received the news that his film “Under an Arctic Sky” had been asked to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. For the director, cinematographer, writer and illustrator, it represented a remarkable and very modern digital fairytale.
While Weiland is known for his documentaries centered on surfing in some of the most remote and coldest frontiers on Earth, eight years ago his only experience with the upper latitudes was through a screen on his laptop.
“Back in 2009, I developed an interest in trying to discover obscure surf spots and figured most would be in the most remote and coldest locations,” Weiland tells GrindTV. “At first I scoured Google Earth, but then progressed on to more in-depth nautical charts and old Navy maps. I started the Arctic Surf blog to document and share my findings.”
All this was done from Weiland’s bedroom in California. It might have stayed a fascinating, yet fantastical, concept — until he received a call out of the blue from noted adventure photographer Chris Burkard. Burkard had discovered Weiland’s blog and asked him if he could help him in planning a surf trip to New Zealand‘s South Island for SURFER. Weiland did and, despite possessing no writing experience, wrangled a spot on the trip as a journalist.
“I arrived on that trip so green,” Weiland laughs. “I was with Chris, plus a load of other guys who were total legends in traveling and documenting some of the most extreme environments. All my experience had been done on a laptop.”
Weiland was a quick learner, though, and it was this trip, plus Burkard’s mentoring, that set him on a path as a filmmaker and photographer. Since then, his films in Russia, Alaska, the Faroe Islands, Canada and New Zealand, to name a few, have cemented him as a new force in cold-water exploration and storytelling.
The latest film, “Under an Arctic Sky,” was again instigated by Burkard. He had a fisherman contact in Iceland who was willing to rent his boat for a few weeks in the winter to search for new waves. Burkard asked Weiland to accompany him as director of photography to help him capture the search.
“It’s a total gamble, really — [these films] always are,” says Weiland. “There’s no script, no sponsor, there’s no set platform where it will be shown, and as a result, there is little funding for it. Chris is just driven to search for new waves and new experiences. As it happened, there was an extraordinary amount of drama that unfolded.
“That’s the key, though. In going to these remote environments, the only guarantee is that you can expect the unexpected.”
Burkard and Weiland started a crowdfunding push so that they could take the film on the road. It was successful, and after the Tribeca Film Festival, the duo hopes to hit the festival circuit. However, eight years down the track since he started his blog, is it possible for Weiland to maintain his passion for cold-water exploration?
“I still have a strong desire to keep searching,” he says. “These trips aren’t easy. You might surf one day out of 14, you spend whole days driving and there are many long, dark, cold nights.”
If that doesn’t sound like fun, for Weiland, there is, however, always a payoff.
“I always remember that first trip to New Zealand’s South Island, where I discovered I had an overwhelming desire to see what was around the next corner, the next cove,” he says. “Exploration is fundamentally about optimism. You have to believe there is something special to find, some experience that will blow you away, make your heart soar and be worth sharing. And if you keep looking, then you will usually find it.”