A few weeks ago I reviewed Fire In Babylon (Steven Riley, 2010), a new documentary about the legendary West Indies cricket team who fought against racial prejudice and sought to prove themselves as equals on the playing field. Against the sociopolitical backdrop of England’s race riots and Caribbean civil unrest (this took place in the mid-to-late 70’s and early 80’s) a small group of cricketers changed the perception of their nation, and despite my fundamental disinterest in sport the film captivated me. Why? Because it was about real people, and provided an essential cultural document of a revolutionary time. The film was thrillingly alive; exciting and soulful. The same, thankfully, can be said for Rio Breaks, the new surfing documentary from Justin Mitchell, which paints its story of young surfers against the social backdrop of drug trafficking and gang violence.
See, Rio Breaks isn’t a film about surfers, and its gaze (and audience) is not limited to that subject. Its scope is huge, its heart in the right place and its message one we can get behind. Rio De Janeiro is a swelling city, but still one of crime and poverty. Lucy Walker’s recent humanist art doc Waste Land (2010) focused on the workers of Jardim Gramacho, the largest landfill site in the world, located in Rio. They had been dealt a rough hand in life but did the best with what they had – the people were warm, kind-hearted, optimistic and knit together by community. Hardship is something the people of Rio encounter whether they live on the “concrete” or in “the hills.” One is a better way of life, sure, but to think you can escape crime is a notion of fantasy, and a sad impossibility. 150,000 people die in drug related shootouts every year, and many friends, fathers or brothers of the kids in Rio Breaks have suffered that fate. They’re been drawn in my the money, and the prospect of a better life, but in the process were killed, sometimes by members of their own gang. That creates anger in the kids, but thankfully they can take it out on the waves and not each other. Say what you will about Rio – and there’s much of importance left to be said – but the sun is always shining, and that instills the people with hope.
Mitchell also serves as DoP on the picture, and he makes Rio looks beautiful. It would have been so easy to pander to cliché and make a depressing picture, shooting the city through a grim, social realist lens. But even though he gives space to the issue of crime and difficult social aspects – especially in heartfelt interviews with the kids – his main priority is to document their escape on the waves, and the better life held by that clear blue ocean. There are some stunning landscape shots in the film, with the rooftops on the hills providing a remarkable visual spectacle, but the beach is the most inviting location, especially when we get close to the crashing waves and blazing sun, reflecting off of the golden sands. I’ve never been to Rio but I feel that this is a very fair portrait; we’re told about the horrors, which don’t need to be shown explicitly, but Rio is also painted as a city of hope, and above all one filled with good people. The people here have heart, and they put it into their work, hobbies and family. Surfboards are fixed for free in the shop, not because that’s the financially viable option, but because citizens of ‘the hills’ look out for their own. Schooling is important. Kids who don’t go to school aren’t allowed to surf, and that encourages them to learn. This, in turn, helps form the social skills that they bring to the beach, where they meet up on the water and become friendly rivals. You need friends in a place like Rio, because the streets can be tough.
Once again the form of documentary has taken my breath away, and left me with new interests and passions. Before I watched Rio Breaks I didn’t care a bit about surfing; I was perhaps enticed by the exoticism of it, and how close it brings you to nature, but it’s never something I wanted to give a go. After seeing these inspirational kids ride for their lives, I know I have to surf. Before Rio Breaks I was aware of Rio’s drugs trade; I’d seen the pictures of kids with guns, and read shocking statistics concerning the police and gang warfare. But to see it in action, and see the people it affects… well, that’s a different matter. That’s something which impassions me and makes me want to learn more. There’s very little we can do to help the people and that makes me sad. But as long as these kids have the waves their lives hold promise. That makes me happy, and it makes Rio Breaks a great film. Please, seek it out.
Rio Breaks is released in UK cinemas 3rd June 2011.
Director: Justin Mitchell
Runtime: 85 min