Who called Judge William Lee a scruffy-looking surf nerder? What does that even mean?
A story about surfing and survival.
Sport can change lives; it can even save lives. Every sport has its example of a poor youth who beat the odds and excelled at a sport with a seemingly unreal talent. Here's the potential for that type of story featuring two kids in the crime-ridden slums of Rio. For the boys in Rio Breaks, winning a surfing competition and the hope of securing a sponsorship may be their best chance to avoid getting sucked in to a life of crime.
Facts of the Case
Rio de Janeiro is famous for its beautiful beaches and its rampant crime. Fabio, 13, and Naama, 12, are two boys living in the shantytowns on the hills surrounding the city. They've both been affected by the violence of the favelas, one lost a father and the other a brother that were involved with the drug gangs that control the slums. The boys also share a passion for surfing and they spend as much time as they can in the water. At Arpoador Beach, they're encouraged by the Favela Surf Club which is run by a group of surf pros—some of them have taught the best surfers to come from Brazil—who offer free lessons and board repairs to locals from the hills. If Fabio and Naama can win an upcoming surfing competition, it could be their ticket out of a life of poverty and crime.
Director Justin Mitchell grants viewers an insider's view of life in the slums of Rio. The level of comfort and honesty of his interview subjects shows that he has gone to lengths to gain their trust. From the views in and around the turquoise waters to the labyrinthine concrete passageways of the favelas, it feels like we're seeing the action where the locals hang out. That's not to say the exotic beauty of Rio is overlooked. Mitchell's camera burns plenty of film appreciating the suntanned bodies on the beach but that postcard pretty perspective is effectively counterbalanced with the reality of locals' lives.
The pressure of joining the drug gangsters is ever-present for young boys in the neighborhood. It's not because the lifestyle is attractive—everyone knows the danger involved—it's just that these kids don't see any other real options. The young men at the Favela Surf Club try to be positive role models even if some of them have given up on their own dreams of becoming world-class competitors. Fabio even gets kicked out of surfing lessons until he returns to school.
Focusing on Fabio and Naama, Mitchell is very patient with his young protagonists. We see them hanging out with friends and family, playing, arguing and being reflective. Carefully, he gets them to talk about the tragedies they've already endured. Fabio's short temper occasionally tests the patience of those around him but he's a likeable kid and you really hope he pulls out of his downward trajectory soon.
There is some exciting surfing footage but the waves aren't the giants like those seen in surf spots around Hawaii. Likewise, the skills of Fabio and Naama are impressive but not yet at the caliber of champion surfers. Rio Breaks is weighted more toward the human drama than most surfing documentaries and it's certainly found a compelling story with these two boys.
The picture quality on this DVD, from a mix of film and video stock, is quite good. The rich, sun-baked colors that feature in the footage in and around the water make these scenes so inviting. Image detail is clean and sharp. The stereo audio serves the Portuguese interviews and English voiceover narration very nicely. The alternately moody and exciting music has a pleasingly strong presence.
Eight bonus scenes (almost 13 minutes total) are included. The featurette &uquot;Living Cantagalo&uquot; (7:00) is footage the director shot during an earlier trip to the favela. The footage wasn't used in the film but it provides a further look at the people and their homes, as well as a glimpse of the filmmaker at work. Two trailers are included on the disc: the original fundraiser trailer that suggests the film may have had a slightly different focus in its early stages and the official trailer for the finished film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I wrote above, this documentary is more concerned with the story of the two boys than it is with capturing awesome wave action (though there is a good amount of footage on the water). The middle section of the film feels a little slow once you realize Fabio and Naama are stuck in a routine that doesn't change much and isn't going anywhere fast. The surfing competition that serves as the climax to this chapter in their lives doesn't figure as prominently as was suggested earlier in the film. The contest also reveals that some of the peripheral personalities of the film, like the even younger Picachu, should have had bigger parts.
It's a sports documentary, like Hoop Dreams, with the constant threat of a crime story, like City of God, hanging over it. Rio Breaks takes the surfing movie to a unique place by keeping one foot in the water and the other in the gang-controlled favelas of Rio. It may not be loaded with thrilling footage of monster waves but it puts a certain gravity to the sport that hasn't been depicted before.
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