Rio Breaks (Review)

Combining both the bliss of Rio de Janeiro’s surf spots and the grit and danger of its shanty towns, Rio Breaks tells the story of friendship and coming-of-age through its documentary format. Its attempt to show where the favellas and the beaches meet means that it’s ambitious in its scope, but is this slum-come-surf film greater than the sum of its parts?

After a great opening scene where our stars, Fabio and Naama, take their first trip in a boat, the story then hits a sandbank and stutters slightly, mainly because some of the narration is a little on the patronising side.

Even putting aside the fact that the film’s main audience might be surfers and/or those interested in Brazilian culture, I think it is fair to say that anyone with any smattering of general knowledge would know a bit about the favela situation in Rio, or if not, be able to work it out through the powerful footage and eyewitness accounts from its residents in the film. So too would the non-surfer be able to understand from the images that a younger surfer, full of the rashness which comes with his age, would not necessarily see the harm in cutting up another and stealing his wave, though he may not know the technical vocab. We don’t need the situation spoonfed to us.

Fortunately, the great thing about this film is that for the most part, the narrator keeps quiet and the characters and scenery are allowed to speak for themselves.

Periodically we are reminded of the importance of the philanthropic actions of the Rio Surf School, an organisation run by experienced surfers who have had varying degrees of sponsorship success in the past. Without its efforts, few of the kids ‘from the hill’ would be able to borrow boards and surf at all. The aim of the school is to give kids a hobby to keep them out of drug trafficking and to host surf competitions which give the otherwise directionless youngsters something to aspire to and work towards. The project happens with varying degrees of success. One of the founders encourages the children to try church, to see what it’s like. He is adamant that “A wave is God carrying you along in his hand,” while the two kids merely pray for better waves the next day.

More difficulties with their approach are highlighted when they pass a rule that only children attending proper education can use the equipment. Fabio and Naama attend despite some initial reluctance, and then realise that from where their classroom is, they can see whether or not the surf is any good, and whether school is worth skiving.

When the narration lays off and interviews take over, we are allowed more into the strange psychology of Fabio and Naama. Their voices are yet to break, and yet they can speak authoritatively on gang procedures: “If you screw up, you’re dead,” says Naama, giggling. “They shoot you in the head and they’ll throw you in the pit.” Fabio is more sensitive, his father was killed when he tried to leave the gang, so he tells us. And he plays the typical part of the unhappy teenager, struggling to cope with his complex emotions by grabbing his mates in headlocks.

It might be seen as harsh for the school to hold up the golden carrot of sponsorship to these kids, knowing that so few of them will realise their dreams in that way. The film is ultimately quite pessimistic as even the actions of the Surf Club cannot quite save Fabio from the influence of the bad crowd. Naama predicted this all along. Something about his temper and his history made it so: “He is a little…unloved.” Naama, despite living in poverty, we can see is fated to do OK. Like lucky children across the world, he has a supportive family background and generally a more positive outlook on life.

The film’s real strength lies in its depictions of the beautiful landscape, the long shots of the steep cliffs, lingering footage of the deep blue splashing waves and the close-ups of the ecstatic smiles of the kids as they let the sunshine fall on their closed eyelids. The surfing which the school provides might not be a guaranteed springboard to a better existence, but the actions of the water, sand and sun can provide that ever-precious transcendental escape from the everyday world. And surely that is what any surf documentary should strive for: to explain to common landlubbers why surfing’s enthusiasts spend so much time in the water, looking for the perfect wave.

by Leo Nikolaidis

Rio Breaks will be in UK cinemas from Friday 3rd June. To find out more information about the film go to riobreaks.com.

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