By Dirk Sonniksen | November 29, 2010
Director: Justin Mitchell
Writer(s): John Maier (co-writer), Vince Medeiros, Justin Mitchell
Rio Breaks follows Fabio and Naama, two young friends who attempt to break free of incessant crime and drug trafficking on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Their outlet? Surfing. Living in the favelas high above the rest of Rio’s inhabitants, the boys journey to the ocean via a steep trek down the mountainside where Rio’s poor eke out a meager existence. The ocean butting up against Rio provides a stunning backdrop to this tale of squalor, an expanse of blue that gives these kids an incentive to break free of the favelas. The ultimate goal for them is a sponsorship that will land them on the international surfing circuit, but will they have what it takes to make it?
Such dreams are wrought with pitfalls as drug gangs like The Red Command prey upon children like Fabio and Naama, turning them from innocent youth into street-ravaged thugs who often end up at the bottom of the “pit,” a giant garbage disposal where bodies are dumped after being murdered. Rio Breaks follows these boys and others, chronicling their struggle to break free from the crime that plagues this place nicknamed “The Marvelous City.”
Director Justin Mitchell does a fantastic job of zeroing in on this unprivileged microcosm, forced to live out its existence (yes, it’s more of an existence than a life) amid the gangs living in what locals refer to as “Vietnam,” aptly named due to the near-constant gunfire that occurs there. We see kids that are literally one step away from a life that will undoubtedly end in violent death. Fortunately, many of these kids are drawn to surfing as a way to escape the gangs.
What is fascinating (and heartbreaking) about Rio Breaks is how these young men who are initially drawn to surfing are quickly thrust back into a life of crime. Some have already walked the streets peddling drugs, others join the various gangs as a right of passage—a kind of badge of honor. Most of these kids are well aware that joining the gangs means a short life, with some ending up at the bottom of the “pit.” Nevertheless, this fatal lifestyle is a magnet that pulls them toward the gangs and away from any kind of salvation they might find surfing Rio’s waves.
Subject matter aside, Justin Mitchell provides a lush canvas with some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in a documentary. Fantastic shots of the our young subjects riding the waves of Rio are interspersed with eye-opening views of the favelas of the city. The attention to detail that was obviously spent on the cinematography helped to heighten an already well-paced narrative.
Rio Breaks is a documentary that will likely anger many, as it deals with a country that seems to have completely forgotten those in need. The inhabitants of the favelas are victims not only of the gangs who terrorize their streets, but also the police who seem completely oblivious to the crime running rampant under their noses. (Their excuse is that there is nothing they can do about it.) Indeed, Rio is a city that, due to unending violence and police corruption, appears incapable of any kind of progressive change. Perhaps surfing is one way some of Rio’s youth can escape this tragedy and lead productive lives away from these bloody streets.