Justin Mitchell’s documentary Rio Breaks focuses on the harsh reality of two friends who choose surfing and survival over drug crime and gang wars in Brazil. Thirteen-year-old Fabio and twelve-year-old Naama are two best friends living in the favela near Arpoador Beach, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The pair grew up in the same barrio, connected by their mutual love for surfing and the shared desire to escape the slums.
They live a difficult life, and their friendship is tested, but when they join the Favela Surf Club, a non-profit initiative from within ‘The Hills’ that encourages young people to stay away from drugs, it offers them not only a temporary escape, but the chance of a way out. The alternative for the kids of the favela is drug trafficking which is a brutal, bloody business. We’re told that there is a high probability of violent death before they reach adulthood, a theme which the two boys are both very familiar with. Naama is younger, optimistic but scared of failure. Fabio is a year older, cocky, brash and already hardened by the neighbourhood that has claimed the life of his father and friends.
This is a happy vibrant movie, far from the glamour of the Copacabana, with a kick to it. It avoids glamorising gang crime as is sometimes stereotypically characterised in movies about Rio. We really get a chance to connect with the two boys and understand their desperation, beautifully captured and touching. We are not encouraged to feel sorry for them, but watch them as they make their own life choices.
Having two such interesting and diverse children to focus on makes Mitchell’s film charming to watch. You care about both of these boys, and also sympathize with many of the other locals who are interviewed too.
In a recent interview in Little White Lies Vince Medeiros, the writer and producer revealed what it took to shoot on location in the fearsome favelas. “You’re afraid, aren’t you?” says Naama, Rio Breaks’ 12-year-old lead character. “They know it already. The drug lord, he knows as well.” He smiles. “It’s okay for now, but if you guys screw up…” his finger runs the length of his throat, left to right… “then you’re dead!” Naama’s warning made it into the film, as it accurately described the fear of the crew. Medeiros said that once you entered the favelas, you were in a place that is run by its own rules and where the police have no control over gangs. Despite the initial fears over time the crew felt safer, and got to know the colourful neighbourhood. They saw a different side to the radical tales of poverty and violence coming from the favela.
It seems it the favela is full of surprises, many of which are beautiful and life affirming. The surf club and the guys who run it are testament to that.
A charismatic, poignant, and eye-opening documentary that leaves you wondering what the boys are doing with their lives now and whether they managed to escape where so many others have failed. Mitchell crafts something highly educational, rather touching, very engaging and in addition visually interesting. It has a real human quality to it that proves to be thought provoking throughout.
This is one wave certainly worth catching if you have the chance.