By Matt Walker
"Nobody reads it anyway." When you write for a surf mag, you hear that sentence over and over, but guess what? It's bullshit. And for proof, look no further than "Rio Breaks," a new documentary about two surfers struggling in the slums of Brazil that's been to film festivals from Rio to Hawaii and airs this summer on the Sundance Channel — and it all started with a story published in SURFING in 2003.
Back then, Vince Medeiros was our associate editor. Today, he's the publisher of Huck Magazine, and co-founder of Church of London, where he makes flicks with fellow producer/writer Justin Mitchell. "Justin was a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles," says Vince. "He read the piece, dug it and got in touch. He said, 'Should we make a film?' I had no idea I was committing the next five years of my life to a project that gave me endless sleepless nights, headaches galore and crazy all-nighters editing the final cut, but also huge levels of satisfaction."
Now that little film's doing even more for its two 12-year-old protagonists and their poverty-stricken home, with the help of Brazilians Maya Gabeira and Carlos Burle — plus Kelly Slater himself. Wanna know more? Well, keep reading.
SURFING MAGAZINE: Describe the film without giving too much away.
VINCE MEDEIROS: The film tells the story of two best friends, Fabio and Naama, as they navigate their way between the dangers of life in the slums and the joys of surfing on their favorite beach. Fabio, who's 13, and Naama, who's 12, live in an enormous slum near Arpoador Beach, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The favela is home to one of Rio's most heavily armed drug gangs, and the gang pretty much sets the rules and regulates life in the community. We wanted to show what it is like to grow up in a favela, especially during those tricky years that sit between the innocence of childhood and the beginning of adolescence. For these kids, this is a key period in their lives, where important choices are made. For these guys, they have surfing and the support of the older guys running the favela's surf club — so there's a choice that exists outside of the typical discourse of poverty, drugs, violence. It's this dynamic, this dichotomy between surfing and drugs, favela and the beach, innocence and the beginning of adulthood, that the film explores.
How did you discover the protagonists?
We found them by accident. We had been focusing the film on a kid much younger than them, who was like seven years old, when we noticed that there were a couple of surfers who kept following us wherever we went. So we were like, Who are those two? They're always together? We soon found out they are best friends, they live in a radical part of the slum (a place called Vietnam), are part of the surf club and happen to be pretty decent surfers too. Soon we found out they were Fabio and Naama, best friends and surfers to boot. The guys are now 14 (Naama) and 15 (Fabio).
How do Maya and Carlos come into play?
Maya learned to surf with the instructors of the favela surf club. (The guys teach tourists and middle-class or rich kids as a way to fund the project and make a living.) So Maya was an obvious fit. As for Burle, I've known him for a long time and when I caught up with him during a trip to London some time ago I mentioned the film to him. He said he thought it was interesting and to keep him in the loop. A few years later I put the surf club in touch with Burle and they organized a day of tow-in lessons with him, which we caught on film.
What did you discover during the making of?
I discovered the real meaning of the word fear every time we had to walk past drug soldiers carrying AK-47s and AR-15s. I also found that it is particularly scary when you are stopped by someone wearing a grenade belt. But more importantly, the main thing I found out is that the dominant discourse, which is everywhere in the media and that shows the favela in terms of negative stereotypes, poverty and violence, is by no means the only discourse to be found. The place is also awash with alternative narratives, incredible stories, great people doing great things, such as the guys who run and have run the favela surf club for many years. Their hard work has had and continues to have a hugely positive impact on the lives of hundreds of kids.
How's it being received? What festivals have screened it?
It's been super well received so far — people have been really kind. It screened at the following festivals: Rio International Film Festival, Hawaii International Film Festival, London Documentary Festival, among a few others, and it aired on the Sundance channel in the US, in Europe and parts of Asia.
How has the film helped the protagonists since it aired? And how are they doing today?
Earlier this year, Luciano Huck, host of one of Brazil's most popular TV shows, watched the film, dug it and decided to put all of his clout, resources and plain hard production cash (his program has institutional status and draws about 12 million viewers every week) to help the film's characters. In the show that aired on March 6, Luciano meets Naama, who in the film says that his dream is to go surfing in Hawaii. Luciano surprises Naama when he stops by his house in the favela, TV cameras in tow. At the end of the visit, he says he'll not only take Naama to Hawaii, but also introduce him to Kelly Slater. In exchange, Naama has to promise he'll never join the drug gang, keep going to school and agree to learn English. Naama's meeting with Slater is pretty incredible, truly heart-breaking (see video link). On their return, Luciano buys the family an apartment in Copacabana, moving Naama and his family out of the favela. The TV presenter has also fully refurbished the surf club, which now has the capability of shaping boards from scratch, a screening room, dressing room and all the structure needed to operate as a cultural and sporting hub in the favela.
Keep an eye out for the film on the Sundance Channel and on DVD, out this summer. To donate to the Rio Breaks Foundation, please email firstname.lastname@example.org