The Archipelagic Artist

The small group of surfers huddle together in the line up spot, waiting and watching the glassy surface a few feet out to sea for any sign an oval shaped barrel is about to pitch down the shallow reef. Will it give them a slice of what they've all been chasing?? The search for the perfect wave can often be an endless and fruitless pursuit.

My focus is resting on the tall western girl perched on the end of the flat coral. Camera in hand she also waits, poised and patient until a small Indonesian girl catches a wave and races to the end section. She lifts her camera and captures the moment, in a flash they are caught up together in the merging relationship between subject and spectator. They are one and the same.

The camera girl, is in fact a women. Rebecca Coley. A film maker, humanitarian, business owner and lucky for me, a friend. She grew up on the tiny Island of Jersey. The largest of the Channel Isles which lie between England and France. This is her 14th year visiting Indonesia, an archipelago of over 17,000 islands. Here we are in Nias, off the coast of Sumatra, one in 17,000, but an absolute gem.

I have known Becs for a few years now, through filming projects and running retreats together. A wearer of many different hats, her relentless energy for her art intrigues me. Her motivation to return here year after year lies in her fascination with the stories reflected in the land and people. It is where her visual storytelling journey began and is set to end this year. At least until the sequel that is.


Later, over “coppe susu” (strong black coffee with a splash of sweet, gooey condensed milk) she explains the magnetism of Islands for her. We reflect on the parallels between this place and Jersey. Worlds away and oceans apart, but the similarities are uncanny. Perhaps it feels like a home from home, but with enough distance from the awkwardness of growing up, memories of heartache or familial ties.

“There’s something about Islands I love. I always get drawn to Islands. When I go off on trips I always end up on an island somewhere. They bring out extremes. You can go anywhere in the world and its the same dramas, just slightly different culture or backdrop.”

So an Island girl, visiting Islands far away, capturing and collecting stories.

“I love storytelling and i think it’s really important to us as humans; to help understand why we’re here and what it all means.”

Becs has always been obsessed with film making and after studying law in Liverpool, worked her way up from runner to script supervisor to producer, some might say she winged it, but she tried every role going on set, and gave it her all. She joined media focussed courses in London and Sydney, and after working on an array of film projects and TV programmes from horror to home improvement she found her way to Indonesia and began her documentary about Nias in 2007.

The humidity of Indo heralded many twists and turns; elation and set backs; curious leads, dead ends and severed ties; yet she has finally has ended up with 2 films. One a short, documenting the story of Nias local Bonne Gea, the first female surfer on the Island who went on to become Indonesian surf champion. It recently won best UK short at the London Surf Film Festival. The second, is a feature length piece with all the bangs and whistles. It’s currently in the pipeline. Almost complete. A historic tale of danger, intrigue, adventure and ego - it centres around the discovery of a “perfect” wave in Nias, a point that led to some significant changes in the local area.


It’s coming up for 10 years since she started, but why so long? Aside from the realities incurred in independent film making such as budget, schedules, commitments and people, of course. Was there something else holding her back?

“It’s like an emotional maturity. In some way I had to go through what the film is about, otherwise I couldn't fully make what I intended. I had to reach that place of experience, to be able to be the person to make the film. I had to go through my own amount of pain, and loss, and heartbreak, and sacrifice, before I could create something that (hopefully) portrays such a level of deep emotion. There’s something about becoming an artist… going deeper into yourself and excavating your own feelings. It can help tell stories that have a deeper resonance with people. It’s all universal themes and about human experience - everyones experience.”

And now it’s come full circle, is she able to detach from those emotions, her experience and the final creation?

“As time passes you get less attached. Life is all about letting go. Once its out there it will have its  own life, its own journey and it won’t really be mine anymore. It’s kind of like giving birth (laughing)”

And with a resolution in sight, is she ready to let go or should I say for the contractions!?!

“Yes!! I can see the end! I’m working with a french animator to finish all the animation, we’re designing it at the moment. Once that’s done, I’m excited to bring it all together and get it out there into the world. I’m looking forward to showing everyone in Nias, we’ll have a big screening and a party! I can’t wait.”

We head to an old village overlooking the surf to get one last shot for the feature length documentary - Point of Change. We walk the final section up the steep hill, because our driver doesn't think the car will make it, the rain has made the uneven concrete too slippy; he’s not a risk taker into wheel skidding. Lugging the camera onto her back and resembling something similar to a turtle, Becs begins trudging up the hill, step by step. An uphill struggle is one way to describe her entire film project, but now the summit is in sight.

The village is filled with houses that look exactly like boats. Lined up side by side, we could as well be in a dock. The narrow walk way down the centre resembles a gangplank but is flanked by stone not water. We set up in a small wooden house with a view over the bay, it's only window letting on shards of light which highlight the focal point within the frame’s composition. They all know Becs here, she speaks fluent Indonesian and greets everyone with openness and familiarity. She starts getting everything perfect for the scene set up, and more and more locals gather to witness the excitement. Becs fondly and patiently directs and adjusts Lucy, one of the protagonists in the film, who has become her protégé throughout these years of filming. She clearly has a strong bond with Lucy and I wonder how that relationship evolved. Becs explains.

Bonne, Becs & Lucy.JPG

”Lucy was a cheeky kid selling coconut bread on the beach, following us around, and in the end I thought it would be quite good to film her to give her something constructive to do. Turns out she was really awesome. Then I had this idea of the ancestors and Lucy representing Bonne in the big film as an ancestor - a younger version of Bonne, but a long time ago. Looking at that role that females play.  It’s a case of art imitating life because Lucy has since learnt to surf, learned English, became a really good surfer, she’s now sponsored. When she was very, very young, she said to me; “thank you for everything you’ve done for me”. I just hope she has the chance for her dreams to come true, what ever she wants to do.”

Back at the Bay, where we are staying, we surf our brains out, taking it in turns on the one battered and previously broken minimal we've rented to share - we're on a budget. Lucy joins us when she finishes school, every bit the transitional teenage girl; sweet, sassy, savvy.. a touch of petulance but still an innocence and obvious need for guidance and support. Surfing connects people across ages, cultures, races, genders and status; and has been a big part of Becs life. Well, more specifically the ocean. It's been entwined with her existence since she was little. Her first memory is helping her Dad’s business, located on the picturesque South coast of Jersey, when it was in its hey day as a UK tourist destination.

“My Dad used to run the pedalos at St Brelades Bay when I was little. I remember getting in the jeep, going to the beach, he’d be looking after the canoes and pedalos and I’d be running up and down the shore line. Sometimes he’d give me the whistle! I just loved it! I was probably just bossing people around, blowing my whistle at them!”

Would she say that the ocean is healing?

“Definitely! I like that quote that saltwater is the best cure for anything - tears, sweat or the sea!  For me, its very true. I got to the sea when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I want to drown my sorrows, when I want to celebrate. I love to just get in the sea! It’s kind of like a baptism or rebirth.. but I feel that it happens every time I get in the sea. And I feel we need it as humans - we can get too bogged down with all the Earthly stuff and its good to wash it all away and start again.”

She’s adamant surfing has been an integral part of her mental health, allowing her to switch off from the endless to do list, different email accounts and de-hat herself entirely.

"Surfing is the only thing that I do, where I don't think”

So what are her thoughts on Bonne and Lucy growing up in indo, as female surfers and how does it differ to her upbringing?

“There’s definite parallels. They grew up with a surfing sub culture on their local beach, so they’re not your typical Indonesian girls. They’ve had way more exposure to Western ways and ideas.  But I think for them its a lot harder to break out of the role thats assigned to females - like, to get married young and have lots of babies. They’re probably quite old fashioned ideas to us now. I think they have to be really strong in themselves to follow their own path and I really admire that about them.  I think with Bonne, she’s getting older and would like that one day, but she’s wanted to live her own life first. With Lucinda.. well, someone asked her if she wanted to stay and get married in that village we were filming in - she’s only just turning 14 and she was outraged! She told them where to go! She wants to just surf and enjoy being a a kid, enjoy being free. I can relate to that. A lot.  There’s definite parallels. My mum is constantly making embarrassing comments about not having any grandkids because I‘m the eldest! So I can definitely relate to that pressure!”

Kids n Becs.JPG

As with usual surf documentation, I don't feel comfortable blurting out the name of this spot. It's no secret, but it's been through its fair share of controversy regarding loose lips. It's one of themes of Point of Change. What does Becs think is important about surf tourism these days and what is she hoping to shine a light on through her film?

“Ah that’s such a big question, I think people will have to watch the film, as there’s so many layers.

But I will say that each individual needs to have more awareness. I think that’s where the change has to happen. Not only about your footprint, what you say and what you do… but all these kids are watching you, learning from you, so what is it that you are leaving behind? What you bring, how you behave, how you drink your water, it’s everything, it all impacts these kids. And it’s up to you whether you make a good impact or not.”

Kids do litter the pointbreak here but it seems there are always enough waves to go around. Yelps and cheers explode from them when we make it, even when we stack it. They surprisingly call us into waves, confusing us with “go, go, go” instead of “no, no, no”! High fives are freely given if you happen to get close enough to someone else. It's the kind of set up where everyone is either on wave or paddling back up the channel or picking their way up the reek on the inside, back to the jump of spot. Waves are rarely unridden and there is a minimal amount of waiting. For me, its heaven and the kind of surfing I can’t get enough of. It’s another reason why Becs has been yoyoing between here and her own Island home - where the waves are considerably less consistent.

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Of course, this is the destination for the first 'Drift Away’. Having build a successful retreat business of her own in Jersey, why is she so keen to bring people here?

“I’d like to share the magic of this place, with the people who come on Drift, but in a way where we can also be an example - have our eco packs, doing beach cleans, not using plastic - we can set a standard for a new kind of tourist. A more conscious tourist.”

Does she feel like bringing a group of people with Drift will be the start of a new chapter?

“After making the film, I don’t want it to be the end. Obviously there’s Drift but I still want to do community projects. I want to make a campaign behind the film, making this a Marine Protected Area or a World Surf Reserve. There’s a breeding programme for the endangered Nias minor bird and I’d like to help with that. And I’ll also like to do a community education project with the local children.”

After surfing, we wander over to a keyhole in the reef to swim, watch the sunset and reflect on the day.. Hell, the last 14 years. She tells me she first came to this very spot after the tsunami, the rock had lifted up entirely; the coral cracked, exposed and broken from the Earthquake produced from the shifting tectonic plates deep below. The damaged caused was devastating.

“I first visited Nias for a surf trip in 2006, but after the tsunami I came back, brought some aid and helped build a couple of wells. We walked around the coast one day to get to the villages we were helping and you could see the debris, peoples lives all strewn across the reef. You’d see a little shoe here or a dress there, and it was so tragic - all ages and sizes. I was speaking to Papa Irwin who was saying they had to start from zero in every way. All their houses and belongings, washed away, but also it was every photo, every bank statement, everything was gone. It just really rung home how hard that is. But at the same time, they were just really glad they were all alive. No one died at the point, and they felt blessed. They felt blessed no one had died and also that surfers had been there to help them, they saved some of the kids. The kids wouldn’t have survived without them as they couldn't swim; they helped carry them up the hill to safety.” 

Bec’s has been coming back to Nias most years since 2008, once or twice a year, usually tying it into visiting her other project - Bukit Lawang Trust. An English school she started on mainland Sumatra in the wake of a lethal flood in 2003. Situated on the edge of the leuser ecosystem, the Trust has helped rebuild the community there, offering free English lessons, kindergarten, yoga, keep fit, green school classes and recently pioneering the first conservation festival in the area - uniting environmental efforts and encouraging communication and cooperation between the segregated groups.

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It seems here in Indonesia - her hats become one - humanitarian, school founder, surf coach, film maker, environmentalist and explorer. She’s known as Becky in Indo, Rebecca professionally, Becs to others; for me it seems fitting for someone who has so many hats to have a slightly different label for each one. It helps her to compartmentalise, without her mind exploding from too many threads. But underneath it all, she is simply a joy to be around; smart, witty, fun, self deprecating at times and oozing love; and having given up alcohol earlier this year; enjoying all the clarity and energy that comes from releasing a toxic relationship.

So what's been her point of change; through this whole process of filming, becoming an artist, discovering her connection to these Islands, Bonne Gea’s rise to fame, Lucy reaching adolescence…?

“There’s been a lot, and I don’t know, maybe that will come when I finally finish the film. I feel like we’re always growing. I think it’s like the wave: its relentless, always going…”

And maybe there’s not one definitive point. This is, after all, a real life narrative, not a constructed story for the masses. Becs agrees and points out the difficulties of becoming attached to things as they are, a wisdom that has come from true learned experience.

I always think of the Buddhist term “Anicca" - life’s impermanent, and the only thing that is guaranteed is change. We’re always changing and nothing is permanent. When you try and grab hold of something, that is when you experience pain and suffering. You have to just accept that everything is always changing and go with the flow. Something like that.”

The sun sets and our minds drift towards food, so before heading to a dinner of standard “nasi goreng" and mixed juice, we contemplate one last thing. The future. How will it turn out? The films? Lucy? Drift retreats? What does the sequel hold? Will she be back?  

"I definitely want to visit other places once the big film is finished but here will always have a special place in my heart. I have a deep connection with Nias for some reason. I love the people here, I love watching the kids grow up, I’ll always come back. And if anything it will be much more pleasant because I can just go surfing, and enjoy it, instead of filming and having ten million jobs to do."


Join myself and Bec’s in Nias in October 2018 for a change themed eco surf and yoga retreat. Details at Drift retreats.

For screening details on Changing Point.

Stay tuned for Nias - Point of Change due for release in Sept 2018.

And if click here you’re interested in learning more, supporting or even volunteering at Bukit Lawang Trust.

Rebecca is now an ambassador for Visit Jersey, watch her video below and find out more here. #theislandbreak