From the lofty heights of the poorest dwellings in Rio de Janeiro, the ocean glistens invitingly as two young boys look eagerly out at the surf. Growing up in the hillside favelas, Fabio, 13 and Naama, 12, dream of becoming professional surfing champions and escaping the cycle of poverty, drugs and murder synonymous with Rio’s slums. Following the boys as they enrol in the Favela Surf Club, moving documentary feature Rio Breaks explores the impact surfing has on their lives and the opportunities it could create for them in the future.
Instantly likeable, the boys’ honesty, charisma and infectious enthusiasm drive the narrative. Their frank accounts of life in these desperate surroundings are shockingly candid and unsentimental, making revelations about the violence they have seen and the losses they have suffered all the more poignant. Naama, the younger of the two, displays a level-headed wisdom that is surprising for a child of his age. Recognising the pitfalls and disadvantages of his upbringing, he is determined not to be sucked into vices that have claimed the lives of many of his friends. However, his almost flippant attitude towards the subject of gang wars and police shootouts presents a worryingly casual, desensitised view of violence. Brandishing a knife in a playful, mischievous manner at his squealing niece, he smirks at the suggestion that he could hurt her. Meanwhile, Fabio displays the universal traits of a teenager; a sullen attitude, a rebellious streak as well as proving himself to be an attention-seeker. However, beneath this bravado he seems vulnerable, less self-assured and prone to melancholic ruminations on his unarguably devastating past. Though he is fearful of a grim future in the favela, he seems helplessly and inexorably drawn towards the fate that deprived him of his father.
The children seem unperturbed by the presence of the camera, laughing, joking and continuing their frequent squabbles under its watchful gaze. Using handheld video cameras, first time director, Justin Mitchell, takes a boys’ eye view of the confined streets of the favela, keeping up with their antics and even including shots they filmed themselves. These sequences are lovingly intercut with kinetic scenes of the surf school members in their element as they ride the waves. Meanwhile, Rio’s stunning vistas smoothly unite these disparate worlds.
Nevertheless, Rio Breaks could prove disappointing for those interested purely in surfing or social commentary. While the structure of the film links these elements well, there isn’t enough surfing to satisfy fans of the sport or enough depth of analysis to engage those interested in sociological debate. Though the film occasionally tries to dig deeper by asking direct questions about the boys’ painful pasts, these moments often feel brash and intrusive, forcing the unnecessary reiteration of sentiments that have been more subtly and touchingly confided elsewhere.
Capturing the best and the worst of Rio de Janeiro, Rio Breaks clearly shows the stark dichotomy of life in this polarised city. Though not edgy or detailed enough to be considered ground-breaking, this documentary is a well told, skilfully constructed and compelling portrait of childhood in one of the poorest areas of Brazil.