Thursday, September 2, 2010

Surfing and social justice combine in Justin Mitchell's Brazil-based docu RIO BREAKS

The waves may not be as huge as those in last week's surfer documentary Highwater, set in Hawaii, but this week's film about boys on boards (girls, too) proves a much deeper and more encompassing experience.  This occurs because Justin Mitchell, the film's director/co-writer (with Vince Medeiros and John Maier), while interested in the surf, is much more so in the surfers -- their lives, situations and home base in the crime-ridden, drug-ring controlled Favela do Pavão, high above the beach of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (In this way the movie also compares to the recent documentary Only When I Dance, which tells the story of two young Favela residents trying to escape into careers in ballet.)

The two boys that most interest Mr. Mitchell (shown above, center, with some of his young surfers) are fourteen-year-old Fabio (below, left) and twelve-year-old Naamã (below, right), best friends who help each other (and, as often, fight with each other) as they make their halting way toward, they hope, something better. The filmmaker spends most of his time with these two, but he also introduces us to their friends, relatives and mentors -- especially one surfing teacher from the Favela who has managed to make it on his own and insists on helping the next generation gain a foothold on a life apart from drugs and crime.

We also learn about the Surf Club -- run by the surfing mentor, that offers pro bono help for all the kids who come from the Favelas above -- and of the social/economic/criminal life that surrounds these kids.  Gangs such as the Red Command, the Blue Command (we even hear reference made to a "Third" Command) vie for the hearts, minds and bodies of these kids, and as is made very clear in the movie, once you join a gang, the only way out is death. The police?  Well, if you're acquainted with Brazilian crime films such as the prize-winning Elite Squad (click and scroll down), you may perceive the police as at least as problematic as those drug gangs.

Interestingly, surfing itself, while clearly a healthier road for these kids than many other options, is not shown at any length in the first half of the film.  In the second half we see more of it, including some of terrific shots of the young and wiry little fellow named Picachu, above, with his protruding tongue who, even at his young age, wins third place in one of the competitions and looks to be on track for a career here. Our two boys, oddly -- maybe sadly -- have less of a connection to the sport by the end of the film they they appeared to have going in, and yet that seems not the real point.

To Mitchell's great credit, it is the larger, more encompassing life of these children that interests the filmmaker most. So we see and hear bits and pieces of their lives -- from the inevitable battle of the sexes ("Women are like gum," notes once of the boys, sporting a clear, untested bravado. "Once they stick to you, it's hard to get them off.") to a discussion of what they want out of life, including helicopters, that is utterly silly, tender, endearing and so very childlike.  How vulnerable are children, the movie shows us once again, and how difficult it is to "grow up." Toss in the Favelas -- and Brazil's near-empty social contract -- and the problems these kids experience grow exponentially.

Rio Breaks, going straight to DVD via Factory 25, makes its debut this week  You can buy it here or save it to your Netflix queue.  (The nation's largest movie rental service is expected to have a supply available soon...)

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