Sachi Cunningham (she/her) is a filmmaker, water surf photographer, and Associate Professor of Multimedia Journalism at San Francisco State University. Her award-winning work has taken her from the deserts of Iraq to the shores of the Amazon for outlets including PBS Frontline, The NYTimes, and top surf magazines. She was recruited to start the first video team at the LA Times, where she covered news around the globe, from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to chasing big wave swells down the coast of California. She has been included in both Surfline’s list of top filmmakers and Surfer Magazine’s list of top photographers. She has a B.A. from Brown University and an M.J. from UC Berkeley. A mental health advocate, cancer survivor and mother, Cunningham lives with her husband and 10-year old daughter on Ohlone Territory, also known as San Francisco, CA.
First off, let's familiarize our audience with your film. What is SheChange?
SheChange is an intimate journey with four of the best female big wave surfers in the world as they fight for equal access and equal pay in one of the most dangerous sports on earth. Their surprising, history-making victory is only the beginning of what becomes their ultimate mission: equity for women in the world of professional sports - and beyond.
When and how did the spark for the project start?
In 2014 I was covering an invitational event for a dozen big wave women from around the world at Mavericks for the SF Chronicle and Surfline. It was the first of its kind, called the WickrX Super Sessions, the brainchild of tech entrepreneur and artist Nico Sell. It was the first time any of us had been in the lineup with that many big wave women all at once. It was my first time shooting at Mavericks while swimming in the lineup. I was terrified but thrilled at the same time. I saw this magic bond forming between Bianca, Paige, KK and Andrea. I was definitely NOT looking for a new project. Just the opposite, in fact, as I had another feature doc called CRUTCH that I was trying to finish while also teaching full time at SF State and being a new mom. But when I saw and felt this historic moment in a sport I absolutely loved to the core, I knew I was literally swimming in the most important film of my career. I immediately put together a pitch to try and raise money, and self funded the shoots from there. Eventually, we’ve gotten some funding, and I have a great deal of thanks owed to you and Withit Girl for keeping the fundraising momentum going!
When did you start filming?
I started filming at the WickrX Super Sessions event at Mavericks on Dec. 17, 2014.
Who are the Surfers + Production team?
The film focuses on four sheroes: 2X Mavericks Awards Champion and 2X Puerto Escondido Cup Champion Bianca Valenti, 3X WSL Big Wave World Champion Paige Alms, WSL Big Wave World Champion Keala Kennelly and Guinness World Record holder for biggest wave paddled into (and 23X Molokai to Oahu SUP and Outrigger Canoe Champion!) Andrea Möller. As I list their badasseries it’s hard to believe this is actually an underdog story.
I am very proud of my production team, which includes my Producers, Adrienne Hall, who is the co-founder and CEO of Sound Off Films, which produces socially conscious, cause driven documentaries and branded content, and Katie Zacarian, CEO and Co-Founder of Earth Species Project, a non-profit dedicated to using artificial intelligence to decode non-human communication.
My Executive Producing team includes Katie, along with Academy Award winning filmmaker Louie Psihoyos (The Cove, Racing Extinction, The Game Changers) and the founder and CEO of Wave Maker Media, Adriana Cargill. I’m also happy to announce two recent additions to my EP team: Jill Ellis, the winningest former coach of the US Women’s Soccer Team and current President of the San Diego Wave Fútbol Club, and Circe Wallace, a pro snowboarding legend turned pioneering action sports agent, entrepreneur, film and TV producer, mother, and EVP at Wasserman, a global talent, brand and media company.
When are you hoping to release/finish?
If we are successful in this final round of fundraising I hope to have a film streaming by spring 2024.
How was the California Coastal Commission involved?
The California Coastal Commission (CCC) became involved when they took over the permitting for the Mavericks contest. The women came together to form the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, which argued before the CCC that if the contest only allowed men to compete, that it was in violation of the CCC’s mandate to protect equal access to the coast. The CCC agreed and eventually required the contest to include women.
Give us a breakdown of what happened to the competition at Mavericks after it was canceled in 2019. What happened the following season (s)?
Unfortunately, in 2019 the World Surf League, who held the permit to the contest, decided to drop Mavericks from the Big Wave World Tour. The only contests currently are a tow contest at Nazaré and a paddle contest at Jaws. Covid really threw the whole tour for a loop, and there weren’t many Pacific swells to work with last season, but I’m hopeful this upcoming El Niño season will produce more magic!
The contest permit was transferred to a young entrepreneur named Elizabeth Cresson, who has been working on a one day event, but it’s been stymied for a variety of reasons. I’m hopeful that she’ll achieve her goal and make a lot of dreams come true! Maybe even this season? We’ll see. If the contest happens this winter we’ll include it in the film, but it’s not necessary to complete the story at this point. Change is gradual and constant.
Even though the organizers said they could not afford to give the women competitors equal prize money, were their counterparts (guys) asked to participate and pool their prize money with the women’s prize?
At first, The WSL said they couldn’t afford to pay the women and men equally. There was some talk behind the scenes among some of the male competitors about ceding some of their prize money to the women to make things equal, but the WSL intervened before anything like this was needed, in part due to pressure from the California State Lands Commission, which said that if the contest was to take place using California State resources that they had to pay women and men equal prize money.
What improvements (positive change) have come about from the awareness of SHECHANGE, and what still needs to be done?
The press that the film has been able to get and the photos that I’ve been able to make and share with various news outlets throughout this journey has been helpful in getting this story out, including a story that I pitched and reported on extensively for the New York Times Magazine, which has been optioned by Academy Award winning Actor, Charlize Theron to make into a scripted feature film with Academy Award winning Director, Niki Caro (Whale Rider, Mulan) attached to Direct for Netflix.
My work on the doc has also been featured in the New York Times and on the Today Show, among other outlets like Withit Girl, which have all raised awareness about the film and the overarching story about women fighting for gender pay equity and access in sports. What remains to be done is to finish this film! Because once we have the story in hand, then the power of story, emotional connection, and neuroplasticity gets to work! I want viewers to come out of the theater (or however they view it) floored by what these women accomplish in and out of the water and buzzing from how wide open their mind has been blown. I want people to be inspired by the athleticism and activism of our heroines and to champion the need for more opportunities for women and girls in sports. SheChange means we change.
Tell us a memorable story about shooting the film.
There are so many. The first contest for women at Jaws was probably a highlight. I was going through chemotherapy at the time for fallopian tube cancer. Only by chance (or because of an angel like my deceased mom?) my antibody tests didn’t come back high enough to get chemo the week that the contest was called on, which meant that I could go! I would have ordinarily been devastated by the news that my body wasn’t healing fast enough between treatments to stay on schedule, but in the end, it was a happy detour. I was completely bald, with no eyebrows and no eyelashes. But my eyeballs were coming out of my head all day and my heart was full watching history being made. I was able to pitch the story to Outside Magazine and Surfline in order to cover the cost of my flight, car rental, and food for the trip, and Paige Alms, who went on to win the inaugural event, was kind enough to let me crash at her place in Maui.
Finally, how about some insights you have learned from taking this project on?
My main mantra of late has been: TRUST. I remind myself to trust. All aspects of this journey in and out of the water. It has been such a rollercoaster, and I have often been so frustrated and overwhelmed with self criticism and short term failures that I’ve wanted to walk away. But that’s fundamentally not who I am. Grit and sticktoativeness (it’s actually a word!) is the name of the game. I sometimes need to take a deep breath, trust the process, and remind myself to enjoy the journey.
All photos courtesy of Sachi Cunningham
Photos of Sachi Cunnighman by Kameron Hall
NYT (.pdf attached)
SheChange GiveButter Page to make tax deductible donations
SheChange IG @shechangethefilm (though not currently active)
SheChange FB page (also not currently active)
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