By Brennan Stark, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Thirteen year-old Fabio and Naama, twelve, live in the Favela do Pavao in the hills above Rio’s Arpoador Beach. One of Rio’s most heavily armed gangs operates here, especially in Pavao’s most dangerous area where Fabio lives. The boys’ deep-rooted love for surfing, however, may be their best chance at avoiding the gangland lifestyle that has taken many of their relatives, and it is their passion for the sport and wry musings that cinematographer Justin Mitchell captures so well in his candid, intimate documentary, Rio Breaks.
Raised by illiterate grandparents and himself unable to read or write, Fabio is a prime candidate to become just another gun-slinging teenage pawn for a local drug gang. His mother was never a part of his life, and his father was killed by his own gang for trying to get out.
Naama, who attends school but struggles with memories of his older brother being killed unarmed by military police, is hardly a more hopeful story, and the two boys’ options seem to be running out.
What saves them, and many others just like them, is Arpoador’s “Favela Surf Club,” a surf school on the fringes of Copacabana that’s there for no other reason than inspiring a love for the sport and pointing children and teenagers from the favela away from the life of crime and hardship they grew up witnessing.
Piloted by a courageous and kind soul who goes simply by Rogerio, the program gives these children free surf lessons from top professionals provided they attend school regularly. Most of the aspiring surfers are barefoot, almost none have their own board, and all dream of turning professional.
If they agree to stay in school and study hard, surfboards are lent out, the lessons continue, and Rogerio and his fellow instructors even work to prepare them for competitions in Arpoador.
One of the most honest moments during the film occurs when one young surfer claims that the beach may be the only truly democratic place in all of Rio. In a city that wears its tremendous class divide on its very makeup and topography, the beach is perhaps the only place where Rio’s rich and poor ever rub shoulders.
While surfing, however, societal hierarchies become useless, mundane, and irrelevant. By using surfing as a way of examining the entire prism of Rio’s society, from the obvious inequalities between favela residents and the rich to Arpoador’s crashing waves finally washing away all differences, Mitchell finds a unique way of examining Brazil’s social problems.
Throughout the film, the boys’ dreams are constantly pitted against the reality of their situation. Unless they become truly great at surfing and win prestigious competitions, it will be hard to completely escape the favela lifestyle on surfing alone.
The Favela Surf Club’s policy that attendees regularly attend school and stay out of gangs certainly helps in this regard, and one cannot help but feel that Naama, who consistently goes to class and dreams of surfing in Hawaii one day, may actually realize his dream. For headstrong and unpredictable Fabio, however, the gunshots of gangland seem to ring ever louder.
Although certainly rewarding and inspiring, one should not expect an entirely feel-good film. Mitchell’s camera makes the brutal realities of Rio’s slums as omnipresent as the waves on which they try to escape. With the help of the Favela Surf Club, however, they, like many others before them, have a much better chance of riding, quite literally, above their problems.