Krista Houghton
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Telling the story of women’s big wave surfing

By Story by Krista Houghton • Photos by Sachi Cunningham

When documentary filmmaker Sachi Cunningham saw women surf Mavericks in 2014, she knew they would change the sport of big wave surfing forever. What she didn’t know then, is that their efforts would lead to changes toward equal pay in US professional sports — for the first time in history.

SheChange is an intimate journey with four of the best women big wave surfers: Paige Alms, Keala Kennelly, Andrea Möller and Bianca Valenti. The film documents their successful fight for equal access and equal pay in one of the most dangerous sports in the world. Their surprising, history-making victory in getting equal pay for women competing in World Surf League competitions is only the beginning of what became their ultimate mission: equity for women in the world of professional sports. With the recent victory for women’s professional soccer in achieving equal pay it seems change is finally coming.

A long list of awards have been bestowed upon Sachi Cunningham’s work, including Emmys, Webbys and recognition from Pictures of the Year International for her filmmaking.  Her work with major media outlets includes the PBS documentary series Frontline, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Discovery Channel, and the Los Angeles Times. Cunningham has been included in both Surfline’s list of top filmmakers and Surfer Magazine’s list of top water photographers.

ASJ got a chance to catch up with Sachi, get caught up on SheChange, and discuss how her work is breaking down equality barriers for women around the world.

Docpitch SheChange Bianca Valenti

Bianca Valenti in the green room at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, February 14, 2017

ASJ: How did this film begin, what was the catalyst?

SC: I was invited to cover the WickrX Super Sessions at Mavericks in December 2014. It was the first event of its kind; 11 of the best female big wave surfers paddled out that day. Mavericks is one of the biggest and most dangerous waves in the world. It was groundbreaking to witness women surfing down these giant waves of water. I had never seen women surf waves that massive, and I knew that day, something special happened — big wave surfing would never be the same. It proved that women had every right to surf there and to compete at Mavericks. Not everyone agreed, which inspired me to create this documentary as a pivotal point for equality in big wave surfing.

ASJ: What is the message you want SheChange to send?

SC: Representation matters. It’s not a secret that women athletes are paid a lot less than men. This imbalance in pay and participation persists not only for athletes, but for female coaches, administrators, sports executives, etc. Our story needs to be shared so this dynamic can be changed.

ASJ: What has been the best part of this documentary project for you?

SC: The best part has been having a front seat to a historic chapter of women’s sports history in the most exciting sport on earth. Women are powerful and I feel fortunate to highlight some of the pioneers who have paved the way for equality in big wave surfing.

ASJ: How is the documentary coming together? How close is SheChange  to being finished?

SC: We’ve shot about 80% and have incredible footage that documents the courage, dedication, and friendship among women in the sport of big wave surfing. The goal is to raise the final budget to finish the film and cover the Mavericks contest if it happens this winter. If the contest doesn’t happen, we still have a complete film that will hopefully be done a year from now.

ASJ: What are the greatest challenges of putting this film together?

SC: One challenge has been covering this story over such a long period of time.My last documentary, CRUTCH, covered an artist over 20 years of his career, and is now screening on discovery+ and United flights, so I’m not new to long stories, but it’s always a challenge to maintain the stamina needed to weather the inevitable ups and downs in your subjects’ lives in parallel with your own. I was diagnosed with fallopian tube cancer two years into filming SheChange, but fortunately, that didn’t keep me from documenting this story.

ASJ: What has been the worst part of this documentary project for you?

SC: The worst part has been piecing together the budget. People don’t realize how much work goes into documentary filmmaking. I have not paid myself a penny and have invested a substantial amount of my own money and time away from my family in order to make this. Still that is not enough. Most people aren’t willing to work for free.

Sachi Cunningham Mavericks

Sachi Cunningham in her happy place, shooting at Mavericks on December 8, 2021 (photo by Nick Paz)

ASJ: How has this project forced you out of your comfort zone as a filmmaker?

SC: I think the most discomfort has been around fundraising. As an independent filmmaker, 90% of your time is spent fundraising, yet I didn’t learn anything about how to do this in grad school, nor did I have any idea that this was the job I was signing up for. Swimming in big waves is the easy fun stuff!

Christian Pacifico

Two-time Puerto Escondido Challenge winner and big wave pioneer Bianca Valenti in her home away from home at Playa Zicatela, July 2020.

ASJ: What’s been your biggest lesson so far? Any close calls out in the water? 

SC: The biggest lesson is one I’ve learned with past films, but somehow forget — trust the process and enjoy the journey.

ASJ: Yes, and it seems your journey recently put your documentary in the top five at the DocLands’ DocPitch competition this May. That must have been exciting. Can you tell us more about that? 

SC: I was incredibly honored to have SheChange make the top five in the Docpitch competition. We didn’t win the top prize, but we did get $5,000 as a finalist and it catalyzed my team and created opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have happened, so I consider it a win. We made the top five out of 130 films submitted, and every single one of them was incredible. My hope is that this momentum will lead to us raising the final budget needed to release the film, because the time for this story is now. We are so close.

ASJ: Is it true there is a movie in the works about female big wave surfing starring Charlize Theron?

SC: Charlize is producing a film with Niki Caro, the director of Whale Rider and Mulan, which is incredibly exciting. I’m not involved with the scripted film, so I can’t speak to whether or not Charlize will star in it, but I do know that  her film will be an amazing opportunity for women in sport and SheChange.

Go to to watch the trailer and learn more. You can support this film by making a direct donation to this documentary here. 

MAIN PHOTO: Paige Alms (middle with hat) is congratulated on her win at the first ever women’s big wave competition at Jaws on November 11, 2016, by, from left to right: Bianca Valenti, Felicity Palmateer, Tammy Lee Smith, Andrea Möller and Laura Enever