Rio Breaks (2009)

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The life of a surfer dude is often depicted as a good one, all sea and sand and sunshine. Here in Justin Mitchell’s documentary we see how surfing in Rio de Janeiro is both an enjoyable leisure activity and also a way of life to keep kids from choosing a life of crime.

The documentary focuses on youngsters Naama and Fabio, the former being a young lad who always tries to do good and wants a better life for himself and those he cares for and the latter being an angry young man who keeps trying hard until his volatility usually gets the better of him. The two lads live in one of Brazil’s many favelas (shanty towns, slum areas that are home to heavily armed drug gangs and death is never far away) and spend as much time as they can on the beach, watching the waves and riding them whenever they get the chance. They are amongst many who are helped and watched over by Rogerio, a surfer himself and a man who now runs the Favela Surf Club, offering boards and opportunities to those who would possibly otherwise be denied both. Kids who stick at it and behave can gain a valuable chance to surf their way out of the slum but will Naama and Fabio stay on the right path? Will their friendship even endure until the end of the documentary?

Rio Breaks is, like most documentaries, a fascinating snapshot of a lifestyle that audiences would, for the most part, otherwise be ignorant of. Justin Mitchell has picked some great central subject matter and found himself two interesting and likeable protagonists in Naama and Fabio. Naama may be the sweeter kid, while Fabio often becomes rather bullying, but it’s worth remembering that they are both so young to be surrounded by such bleak life choices and horrid violence.

Sadly, Mitchell doesn’t quite make the best of his raw materials. A lot of the situations and incidents onscreen are described in the voiceover narration as well as shown, something that I often find detracts from the power of the images provided in the documentary format.

There’s also no real developments that make this particular documentary something above and beyond anything that could be captured for a number of TV travel channels. We are told about a way of life and we then see it for about 80 minutes and then the credits roll. While I appreciate the fact that things weren’t neatly resolved and nothing seemed forced for the cameras I also think that this particular story needed more time taken with it. Perhaps Mitchell simply didn’t have that time, especially as we’re talking months or even years here as opposed to days, but it leaves the final product feeling incomplete and almost like a wasted opportunity.

Rio Breaks is still, undoubtedly, a good watch, especially for documentary fans, but I can’t help thinking that it could have been much better.

Rio Breaks gives us a wave on DVD on 3rd October here in the UK.

DIRECTOR: JUSTIN MITCHELL
STARS: FABIO, NAAMA, ROGERIO
RUNTIME: 85 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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