Rio Breaks: Surfing And Surviving In The Favela

Vince Medeiros tells of his experiences with the Favela Surf Club, a group that brings the joy of surfing to the shanty towns of South America.
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Whether celebrating the steely nerves of those who tackle the big waves in Riding Giants, or the less ambitious charms of the so-bad-its-good Cornish equivalent Blue Juice, surf movies offer audiences a sense of a different life, one that is more in tune with nature, perhaps simpler and certainly more sun-kissed. Other recent favourites have included the New Jersey surf of A Pleasant Surprise, shot in glorious super 16 by Kyle Pahlow and closer to the temperature of our own waves than Laird Hamilton’s adventures in Hawaii, while HBO’s trippy long form drama John from Cincinnati, canned after just a single series, made a good stab at bringing the eccentricities of beach culture to the small screen.

Every once and a while a movie emerges which transcends the constraints of an established genre, and successfully connects local experiences with wider, global concerns. Rio Breaks, on limited theatrical release this month, is one of these films. Far from City of God, this life-affirming film offers a fresh take on the experience of those living in the favelas of Rio De Janeiro.

The seeds of the film came from a story first published in Surfing magazine back in 2003, which focused on the Favela Surf Club. The group leant reclaimed boards to local kids, as well as offering lessons and guidance from experienced mentors. While encouraging those in its care to engage in regular competitions, the club also had a social agenda. These youngsters, unlike so many of the sponsored riders who graced the covers of Carve or The Surfer’s Path, were chasing something far more ephemeral and valuable than trophies and glory - escape.

Director Justin Mitchell centres the documentary around two kids from Favela de Pavao, a-built shanty town that clings perilously to a hillside which towers above the beaches and beautiful people of Rio. Thirteen-year-old Fabio and the slightly younger Naama can see the ocean from their rooftop and, when the surf’s good, they skip school to make their way past the assault rifle equipped Red Command – a drug gang engaged in a turf war so violent their neighbourhood has been nicknamed Vietnam by its residents - in order to reach the sea.

The idea was to make a beautiful and engaging film

“I was in Rio covering a surfing event when I first heard of the Favela Surf Club,” explains the story’s original writer, and the film’s producer, Vince Medeiros. “I’d visited them, interviewed the people involved and ended up writing a feature, which eventually ran both in the US and in Europe. These guys who run it are basically superheroes and it’s their hard work that allows many of these youngsters to dream, to imagine a better life, and to keep their hopes of childhood alive. Justin read it, liked it and contacted me to say he wanted to make a movie about it.”

“The idea was to make a beautiful and engaging film,” continues Vince, “showing what it was like to grow up in a poor Rio neighborhood and have surfing in your life; to be able to surf and enjoy the elemental feeling of riding waves. What's it like to be a 12-year-old kid from the favela and be able to surf, how does it affect your life, does it have a transformational power and if so how does it change your life? Maybe it does, or maybe it doesn't, but we wanted to find out.”

The kids’ local break is Arpoador, where a difficult to hit wave makes the peninsula more of a spot for professionals and those with local knowledge than the nearby beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. As well as capturing the surfing and the beautiful locations, Mitchell’s camera unblinkingly reports the divide between rich and poor. Just a few hundred yards separate the beachfront apartments from the favela, but represent the heartbreaking geography of social and economic injustice.

“We worked on the film for roughly five years,” adds Vince. “Over time I discovered that the community is a place full of cool, colourful and interesting stories that were radically different from the narrative of poverty and violence that often seems to be the single message coming out of these neighbourhoods. The context of poverty and violence might be there, and things don’t always work out, but the favela is anything but a single-story place, and the surf club is one of these cool, different narratives that rarely make it out into the world. The more we spent time there, the more we realised how important it was to share this with people.”

Rio Breaks is on theatrical release now. Click here for information on screenings.

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