Cinema: Rio Breaks
Writers: John Maier, Vince Medeiros, Justin Mitchell
As with the finest surfing documentaries and movies, Rio Breaks is not just about surfing, rather it is about lives lived in the shadow of the ocean and the chance for freedom – physically, emotionally, spiritually, fiscally… – it offers. A Dogtown and Z Boys for the Rio surf community, it mixes saltwater tales with urban stories as it traces the nascent lives of two of the city’s young surfers.
Inspired by a magazine article about “the kids from the hills,” director Justin Mitchell’s documentary tells the story of Rio De Janeiro’s city surfers and the social classes straddled on the beach where rich kids from affluent homes with promising futures mix with the poorer kids who venture down to the water’s edge from their homes up the mountain in the city’s ever-expanding slums.
Mitchell tells his story through the friendship of two young boys, Fabio and Naama, as they negotiate their adolescent lives in the city’s ghettos where violence and gangs are not just an everyday danger but claim in the region of 15,000 lives a year. Surfing offers a way out, and there are those, slum kids-turned-pro-surfers, who demonstrate this escape, yet the draw of drugs and gangs remains ever present.
Shadowing the kids are they go about their lives, sporadically attending school, more frequently whiling away hours, days, weeks by the ocean, surfboard in hand, Mitchell weaves in facts about the city and the battle that goes on for its youth and their future. The chances of making it out of the city without becoming embroiled in the gang culture that permeates are slim, but there are those that make it. There are those who have gone on to achieve success through surfing, and those who understand its value to young impressionables and who use it to try and shepherd them to a more promising life than one where their life is likely to become yet another statistic.
“The only free and democratic place is the beach,” one of the young surfers observes, yet despite this, the pressures never relent on Fabio and Naama, their fates turning in different directions as the film progresses, and with emotionally resonant consequences. The culture of violence and gangs is not one that is simply chosen, but more often a route born into, or simply that offers, initially, the easiest and most immediate route of escape.
Mitchell also offers up some stunning cinematography here too in surfing sequences that, while offering nothing terribly new or of special note, are certainly stunning in their own right, and capture the freedom that the beach offers to those who spy on it from their lofty, mountain-side vantage point.
It is though, the emotional story of the two childhood friends which really affects, the meaning of what the ocean and surfing means to them, what it offers, and the chances it can provide beyond just the instant gratification. One sequence in particular, with Fabio surfing in a local contest, carries a palpable tension as the implications of his success could far outstrip just the lifting of a trophy.
Rather than being about the epic and the grandeur, or the risk and reward offered up by big wave-riding docs like 2004’s Riding Giants or Billabong Odyssey, Rio Breaks is a far more subtle yet more satisfying and rewarding film.
By Alasdair Morton.
Rio Breaks is out now in key cities courtesy of Mr Bongo Films.