sun 21/04/2024

Rio Breaks | reviews, news & interviews

Rio Breaks

Rio Breaks

Surf kids from the toughest favela in Rio ride the waves

Surfing out of the favela: A cameraman catching the waves in 'Rio Breaks'

There have been stunning films about surfing, like Riding Giants, and also at least one masterpiece about the slums of Rio - City of God. This documentary combines both. It focuses on the lives of two teenage boys, Fabio and Naama, and their dream of escaping the violence of Rio’s slums by carving out a career as surf pros.

The only obvious alternative is a life of crime in the pay of drug gangs in the favelas, where the statistics say 15,000 are killed by guns in Brazil every year. The boys are, the film implies, surfing to save their lives.

Rio Breaks, directed by Justin Mitchell, captures passages of the boys’ lives and their often combative relationship as they navigate the waves on Arpoador Beach and the more dangerous currents of the slum where they live, nicknamed “Vietnam” due to the daily cross-fire. The higher up the hill you are, the worse the violence, where the Red Command drug gang have the power of life or death and shoot-outs with the police or with rival gangs are commonplace. The two live right at the top of the hill. Fabio lost his father when he wanted to leave the gang, and Naama’s brother was also killed.

Winning a local surf contest is the way out. Mitchell is good on the claustrophobic contrast of the slums compared to the open expanses of the ocean. The film sticks around long enough for the boys (pictured below) to relax and is an empathetic portrait of their tough existence. Fabio seems more damaged and prone to anger, Naama much more laid-back.

rio_breaks_pics_fabio_left_naama_rightUnlike the fictionalised City of God, the narrative is in the end a little unsatisfying: the whole thing is built up to the make-or-break contest, but Fabio doesn’t show up, and Naama doesn’t seem too bothered and only completes half the time allowed. Likewise, had the film gone back a year or two later, the key question of whether the boys escaped would presumably have been answered, but is left hanging in the air.

For the surfers of Arpoador Beach, next to the more touristic Copacabana, and the chic neighbourhood of Ipanema, the big gap among surfers is between those who live in “concrete” and who leave by car, and those who walk back up the hill to the slums. It did occur to me how often films for export made by foreigners in developing countries tend to be focused on dire poverty – from Slumdog Millionaire to Benda Bilili! and scores of others.

I found myself wanting to see the contrast of how the surfers from Ipanema who share the beach live in their rich apartments (Brazil has one of the highest gaps between poverty and wealth in the world) which might have given the film a different energy. Even with a few charged and poetic moments, there is a slight sense that we’ve seen this film before, even if not with all these elements together. While the fragile hope and optimism in the face of crushing poverty and violence are inspiring, the emotional weight or originality of the story lies entirely on the shoulders of the two teenagers, who, despite some touching exchanges, don’t quite manage to carry the film.

Although the boys talk about girlfriends, we don’t get to see them. The film-makers understandably don’t want to titillate, or detract from the serious message, by showing too many bikini-clad lovelies on the beach. Shame. Sorry – I meant to say that I applaud their integrity (even if the trailer manages to jam a few in). The music, incidentally, is superb. Do watch out for the soundtrack album from the ever-enterprising Mr Bongo label. The DVD is already out, but the film can be caught on limited release on the big screen.

Watch the trailer for Rio Breaks

The key question of whether the boys escaped would presumably have been answered, but is left hanging in the air

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