Cinema Paradiso

Local filmmaker Jason Baffa documents a native surfer’s ride through a “beautiful life.”

For filmmaker Jason Baffa, it’s never just been about chasing the perfect wave. Making a good movie that’s infused with a positive message remains at the core of his artistic plight. 

Translation? He ends up spending just as much time on land as he does in the water. 

You can see this play out in the very first frame of his latest film, Bella Vita, in which he documents Palos Verdes-born surfer Chris del Moro’s journey of self-discovery by way of his Italian roots. 

The opening scene features church bells ringing, a classic Fiat 500 and a conversation with a priest. 

At Marine Street Café, near where Jason used to live for years, we begin to dive deeper into the craft of a filmmaker.  

So three months living on a winery in Tuscany. Rough life. 

Jason Baffa: Yes, you said it. We used the winery as our “base camp” and traveled as far north as Venice and as far south as Rome and Sardinia to tell our story.  

Why do surf films exist?

JB: Surfing lends itself beautifully to photography and film. It’s light, organic, and I think that’s the draw to people who make surf films. It’s such a beautiful muse.

I imagine that the ocean is an unpredictable subject to shoot. 

J: Absolutely. You need to be pretty fluid when it comes to your vision. It’s about finding a balance between what Mother Nature gives you and what you are able to capture with the greater story you are trying to tell.

I saw the film, and I literally felt like I was dropping down the face of a wave and throwing spray. How did you achieve this? 

JB: I wanted the audience to feel a real connection with Chris and his friends, like they were swimming alongside them anytime they paddled out, and riding in the back of their Jeep. That’s why we used a lot of water photography, as well as hand-held shots, to capture the impression of being present. 

What similarities can we draw between the surf culture here and the surf culture in Italy? 

JB: For one, we share a distinct off-season wherein the locals take back their beach from the throngs of tourists. The South Bay gets a lot more swell than the Italians do, but neither of us has that one perfect surf break—the silver lining being that we have a rich coastal culture to fall back into.

What’s the most exotic location you’ve ever shot at? 

JB: Lesotho, Africa. I was working on a commercial project for Ford, and we were shooting out across a cliff that rivaled the Grand Canyon. The scale was mind-boggling.

Did growing up in LA have an influence on your interest in cinema?

JB: I was around kids whose parents worked in the industry, so it wasn’t this thing that felt so unattainable. It was like, “Oh, that’s a job too.” Just like some people are lawyers and some are doctors, I could go work in production.

“Surfing lends itself beautifully to photography and film.”

Choice board? 

JB: Anything shaped by Tyler Hajiki.

GoPro: Yay or nay? 

JB: Nay. I don’t like the whole “GoPro on a stick” approach. Turns my stomach. 

What are your picks for three must-see films? 

JB: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Big Wednesday and Lawrence Of Arabia.

Bella Vita had its U.S. premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival earlier this year, and your two previous works, One California Day and singlefin: yellow, were warmly received by the surfing community. What keeps you on this path of storytelling? 

JB: It’s the drug of when you finally get to screen your movie … the lights go down, and you get to take however many people are in that theatre on a journey. That moment, at least for me, is the magical moment of cinema. I don’t want to do a flash-in-the-pan project. I want to make great films. 

So how does one achieve la bella vita, the “beautiful life”?

JB: Achieving a beautiful life is about being invested in what you do as a person on this planet.