Through the Doggy Door featuring Mason Ho and Sheldon Paishon follows a surfer’s dream to trade extreme poverty in paradise for the life of a pro surfer and a world of perfect waves. Ahead of the European Premiere of this award winning, must-see documentary at London Surf / Film Festival Saturday 25th November, Chris Nelson spoke with Director Joe Alani about the reality of being Mason Ho’s filmer, fabled breaks and the reality of getting a feature film made.
“Being the filmer on the beach with the top pros – a lot of people think it’s a dream job… it’s like if you put four kids in a candy store, but you tell one kid you can just watch your friends eat the candy. It would drive me crazy, honestly…”
That’s how Through the Doggy Door director Joe Alani describes the first gig he accidentally graduated into after his days as a ‘local ripper’ sponsored rider evolved into a more stable job working with …Lost. And one of the pros he was filming with was one Mason Ho.
“I got to go to Hawaii and film with Mason and then a bunch of other video stuff with him over the years,” explains Joe. “He would come stay at my house when he was in California and vice versa, we have a pretty tight relationship”
One of those trips was to Desert Point, Lombok’s fabled left-hander. Accompanying Mason on this particular trip was with his long-time friend Sheldon Paishon. Hailing from the West Side of Oahu, Sheldon was a super talented, unsponsored, young rider who had grown up the hard way. At the age of 12, Sheldon’s family lost their home and lived in a beachside tent for the remainder of his adolescence close to the legendary surf spot Makaha. Checking through the footage from Desert Point, Joe and Mason were struck by a section of Sheldon deep in the barrel, light refracting through the curtain.
“This water shot of Sheldon throwing up like the West Side sign in the sunset, it just looked cinematic,” explains Joe. “We just looked at each other like, wow… And that’s when we’ve just started discussing the idea of what to do with Sheldon and his story.”
“Our initial idea wasn’t this deep dive into his past and homelessness,” says Joe. “It was about becoming a pro, because he’s this pro level surfer… but he had been so isolated on the West Side and had never been out of Hawaii. Never had a passport. So when Mason did this trip to Indonesia with him, everything was just a mind blowing new thing for Sheldon. Most surf videos, the pros have been the Indonesia 30 times already, but Sheldon was generally surprised about everything – like the plane. So we’re like, ‘Oh my God, how funny would it be to get him sponsored and document this 20-something year old guy becoming a pro surfer’.
But once Joe started filming with Sheldon for the project, he quickly realised the story was much bigger. Sheldon opened up about his life and the obstacles he’d overcome. His candour gave access to an issue few understood – the fine line many families tread between survival and homelessness. This is a problem right across the US, but on the Islands, the tented villages that line the beach are hidden in plain sight, lashed by the rainy season downpours, pounded by the wind. How do you survive in a system with no safety net? Joe knew that was the real story. “There’s a really emotional scene… we came home and were looking at the footage, tears in our eyes, we’re like this, this is something much deeper than a funny surf video.”
There’s a cliché thrown around about young guns, “growing up hungry”… hungry for success. But for Sheldon, he was often just plain, stomach-grumbling hungry. And this lit a fire. Joe and Mason had a plan to get the film made. “We made a 20 minute edit went back to Hawaii during the North Shore season. We showed it at the Rip Curl house with Mick Fanning, Owen Wright, Conner Coffin, all the Rip Curl executives. They were expecting this… ‘Oh here’s a couple of clips of him ripping,’…everyone in the room had tears in their eyes. When it ended Mick Fanning, Owen Wright… they all got in a line and started shaking Sheldon’s hand. And I think that was the moment we were like, ‘This is special’.”
Mason and Sheldon’s friendship goes back to when they were young groms. Joe first shot them together around 2008 and the story follows the evolution of this young, brash kid to the man he is today. But more than that – this is a documentary with many layers, exploring how the oppressive colonial past impacted the native Hawaiian’s lives and how the West Side of the island became more and more impoverished – bypassed by investment and tourism.
The West Side of today is an intimidating place to visit – let alone film. “If it wasn’t for Mason and Sheldon I wouldn’t have had that access…Cameras are pretty frowned upon in certain places, certain beaches over there.” But the West Side and especially the beach was the safety net for Sheldon. “The village literally raised him, all those lifeguards and legendary surfers out of Makaha,” explains Joe. “He’s really lucky, because he’s really talented, and I think in general, people don’t want to see talent wasted… I’m sure there’s a lot of kids that aren’t as outgoing and have less talent that definitely slipped through the cracks.”
That Through The Doggy Door has taken so long to produce and bring to the big screen is a testament to the passion and drive that Joe Alani and Mason Ho have had for this project, for Sheldon’s story and for the wider issues associated with the unhoused epidemic the US.
“I hope this story can resonate and inspire both surfers and non-surfers,” says Joe. “It just happens that surfing is the catalyst that Sheldon was around, that’s what saved him. But the story is really about overcoming poverty… and about heart.”
Through the Doggy Door is premiering at the 12th Edition London Surf / Film Festival presented by Finisterre. Bringing to the capital three nights of the very best in surf cinema with premieres, Q&A’s, workshops, good times and more at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, you don’t want to miss this.
Full details HERE:
Tickets >>> HERE: