JD talks to makers of Rio Breaks
BLACK AND WHITE ARE THE SAME IN THE BLUE
Interview with the director and screenwriter of Rio Breaks, new surf DVD release, nominated for Best Documentary at the Hawaii International Film Festival
Set in Rio de Janeiro, this bittersweet surf documentary mixes the volatile vibe of Favela do Pavão, controlled by one of the city’s most dangerous drug gangs, with the dreams and excitement of two surf-obsessed boys in the landscape of Arpoador Beach. Winner of the Special Jury Mention at the San Sebastian Surfilm Festibal, this Sundance Channel release just came to Britain on DVD. The director Justin Michael (Death Cab for Cutie: Drive Well, Sleep Carefully, Jenny Lewis: Welcome to Van Nuys, Ted Leo: Dirty Old Town & Songs for Cassavetes) and Writer Vince Medeiros (Surfing & Huck Magazine) tell us about their experience of filming in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro.
Based on your experiences in Rio, can you talk a little bit about the popularity of surfing among children living in favelas?
JUSTIN MITCHELL: Surfing, especially at Arpoador beach in Rio de Janeiro, is hugely popular and something that a lot of favela kids want to be a part of but most don’t have the access to it. If you live in Rio- hills or concrete- there’s a pretty good chance that the beach is a big part of your life but that being said, surfing still tends to be a sport for the rich kids. Simple economics – favela kids who can’t afford shoes or food aren’t going to score a new board or even a used one. Unless they find a broken one on the beach (which happens) the only way they’re gonna surf is with the Favela Surf Club or by bumming a better-off friend’s board. So for a lot of kids, it’s hard to really get into it. I mean, just imagine trying to get really good at surfing without your own board? You can’t. It’s something we saw a lot of. The swell is coming up, surfers are pouring out onto the beach, everyone’s stoked and then you see a line of favela kids just kicking it on the sand, sitting there, watching, waiting, and dreaming of being out there. It really makes you feel lucky to have what you have. And it’s why we’re so stoked that the Favela Surf Club has been blessed with funding (which came about from the film being shown on TV in Brazil.) Hopefully more and more favela kids will get a chance not only just to surf, but to actually get good and start competing.
How did you get to know Naama and Fabio?
JUSTIN MITCHELL: The thing about it is that Naama and Fabio (and their story) found us really. On our first full production trip to Rio we spent the first few days following Picachu, the tiny 5 year old Grandson of Fia, the ‘den mother’ of the Favela Surf Club at the time. We loved Picachu but within a day I was like, ‘This film can’t be about just this kid. He’s five. He barely talks!’ But we had to follow through with him for the day and I can remember walking back up with Picachu and this other kid back up into the favela. I’m shooting, trying to frame Picachu in the shot and this other kid keeps jumping in. I didn’t know his name and didn’t really recognize that he was the one kid catching waves that I’d been filming all afternoon. The next day, there’s the kid again. But this time I realize, this kid is catching ALL the waves. In fact he’s dropping in on everybody. He just didn’t care. Later that day I asked Rogerio, one of the Favela Surf Club mentors, ‘What’s the deal with that kid?’ And he was like, ‘Oh man, Fabio. Yeah, he’s got a heavy story.’ He told us some of his background and it blew me away.
Fabio had just turned 13, didn’t go to school, his father had been killed by his own drug gang, his mother had abandoned the family and he lived (sometimes) with his Grandpa way up at the top of favela in an area called ‘Vietnam’ (the heaviest drug/gun area where lots of the gang lives.) Fabio was basically living on the street yet here he was, shredding up the waves at Arpoador one minute and begging for enough change to buy a hot dog the next. And you could tell he was a smart kid. He saw us coming a mile away and was like, ‘I’m gonna be a part of what they’re doing.’ I had a good feeling about him.
And then in comes Naama, 12, the classic side kick into the story. Naama is a sweet jokester, the perfect complement to Fabio’s brooding sadness. Naama’s family had their own hardships and was extremely poor, but at least he had family. As best friends the two were constantly getting into fights, or just being ridiculous, just trying to be kids. Also, what was attractive about the two of them as far as filming was that they were at that perfect age. They were too young to be too cool for school, yet old enough to nearly be adults (as far as favela life goes at least – by age 15 lots of guys/girls are mothers and fathers and some of the guys are already carrying guns and involved in the drug trade.)
They both were like little men with tons of life experience that would blow away most 12/13 year olds here in the US but yet still in their hearts they were hanging on to being kids. And the reality was that both Fabio and Naama were in danger of joining the drug gang. This was the critical hinge point of their lives. Which path would they choose? They lived right in the hornet’s nest at the top of the hill so to speak. Fabio’s father had been in the drug gang, his Uncle was in the gang, all the right elements were there for him to jump in yet here he was, if only just for this one year, trying to have a go at surfing and see if it could offer him a way out.
So yeah, after following Naama and Fabio around for a day, I knew that this was our story and we took the leap, focusing on them for the next year of their lives, seeing if and how their lives could change by surfing.
Can you explain the role of surfing in the plot?
JUSTIN MITCHELL: When I first decided to make a surf film, I knew that I was looking to find a story to tell where surfing was the thread rather than the focus. When I read Vince’s article back in 2003 about the favela surf club, I knew right away that I’d found the story. Surfing, both the act itself and the lifestyle that comes along with committing yourself to it, is something that can keep these kids from dying with a gun in their hand. So surfing is the thread of the film, the thing that’s keeping these kids going. Sure, there are lots of other activities that keep kids out of trouble but just imagine in Rio what happens when a favela kid encounters that overwhelming joy on his first wave. Just as it happens with all of us, when you’re on that wave, nothing else matters. You’re not thinking about anything, just the ride in front of you. And for a favela kid, whether it is for just a moment, a summer, a year or a whole lifetime, to be able focus on something other than the poverty, the drugs, the guns – that’s a pretty powerful thing. That’s what we were trying to capture, how surfing can actually make a difference.
How did you manage to put together surf and the social issues in a sports documentary?
VINCE MEDEIROS: The gap between rich and poor – one of the largest in the world – and the various social and cultural issues that come with it – are a reality of life in Brazil and therefore you can’t possibly make a documentary there, especially a doc focusing on people who live in a poor part of town, without touching on these issues. But I would say that our goal was far from didactic. The idea was to make a beautiful and engaging film, showing what it was like to grow up in a poor Rio neighborhood and to have surfing in your life. To be able to surf, to enjoy the elemental feeling of riding waves – what’s it like to be a 12-year-old kid from the favela and to be able to surf, how does it affect your life, does it have a transformational power and if so how does it change your life? Maybe it does, or maybe it doesn’t, but we wanted to find out.
By Airton Rolim