Justin Mitchell’s documentary Rio Breaks (2009) follows the bitter-sweet story of Naama and Fabio, two residents of Rio de Janeiro’s notorious Favela de Pavao. Both dream of escaping the traumas and deadly temptations of their environment through surfing the waves off the stunning Arpoador Beach. As they look out from their homes to assess the surf for the day, the sea seems to offer limitless freedom from the strains of living in one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
However, the lure of gang culture is much closer to home than the waves – this is the story of both boys’ struggle to resist the trappings of drugs and crime that so many of their friends and relatives have become victim to.
As well as the confident and often roguish Naama and Fabio, we meet a whole host of young surfers (including Picachu, a small kid with big talent) as well as their mentors, pro-surfers who have overcome a lack of future prospects and have returned to the Rio ‘hills’ to inspire future generations to do the same through the Favela Surf Club.
Although surfing is seen as a way to a better life, Mitchell’s film reveals that the surf club members are by no means after material gain alone. Naturally, Naama wishes he could afford to live somewhere different with his family, but it is clear from the success stories of local surfers Rogerio and Simao Romao that the waves also offer a great deal of escape from the intense psychological demands of life in the favelas.
Through a pared-down style and gentle pacing, Mitchell sensitively unravels the personal traumas beneath the cheeky smiles and competitive cockiness of Naama and Fabio. Forced into circumstances which accelerate their maturity, it is clear their youthful, carefree nature is longing for the outlet that surfing can provide. This film is distinct from many previous portrayals of Rio’s favelas (City of God , Favela Rising ) in that Mitchell has concentrated his efforts on creating more intimate portraits of the two boys’ gradual coming-of-age, rather than using rapidly moving footage to focus on gang culture at its most brutal.
Both beautiful and moving, Rio Breaks is an intimate and truly touching study of the will to escape a troubled past through the discovery of a fulfilling future.