Meet the Surfers Redefining Brazil's Largest Favela

A group of surfers from Rocinha want to change perceptions and inspire the next generation to care about the ocean.

A GROUP OF boys holding surfboards dash into the sea, smiling and laughing as golden light beams down on their wet skin. Here, in the water, they have found reprieve from the chaotic, cramped, colourful streets of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela, a low-income urban neighbourhood in Brazil.

Residents in Rocinha are plagued by violence and crime—children play in the same tight alleyways where drug traffickers work. One avenue away from the conflict: the ocean. The Surf Association of Rocinha (ASR), a local surf community and group of instructors, work to pull kids away from the dangers of the city and into the water, every day of the week.

Unfortunately, the community also struggles with widespread pollution and insufficient sanitation. The issue is a reality for all the favela’s residents, but it is uniquely problematic for those who spend time in the ocean. Much of the neighbourhood’s waste flows straight into the nearby sea, leaving surfers and beachgoers to swim in tainted waters. Though the battle against this pollution seems monumental, ASR integrates eco-conscious activities into its sessions with the local kids—planning beach clean-ups and supporting environmental education.

After meeting this group of surfers while teaching English in the region, London-based documentary filmmaker and founder of the socially conscious Goma Collective Mikey Krzyzanowski knew he wanted to share their stories. He pulled together a crew of friends to help him produce the film, including director Sirus Gahan, co-producer Joseph Izzard, and assistant producer Gilvan Oliveira.

We spoke with Krzyzanowski about his short film, “Rocinha’s New Wave,” what surfing means to children in the favela, and his hopes for the future surfers of Rocinha.

A man surfs a wave at Arpoador, known as one of the best metropolitan surf spots in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. PHOTOGRAPH BY OLIVIER RENCK, AURORA

How would you describe Rocinha?

It is a dense, hot, layered, loud, vibrating tropical metropolis, where you are in this huge valley nearly a mile-square, with huge mountains on either side of you and the sea out in front. It’s miles of roads, businesses like sushi restaurants, more bars and places to get your hair done than you could ever imagine, jewelry shops, a hospital—it’s like an incredible self-sufficient microcosm.

What is life like for people in the favela?

It’s very varied. People have a stereotype of it being a very poor quality of life, but there are families that have beautiful houses with beautiful interiors. Like anywhere, it has an upper, middle, and lower class. Quality of life in a material sense might be lacking for a lot of people, but that is a completely wrong way to measure their quality of life.

These guys are out in the streets socializing, drinking, and partying together, smiling together. It’s a very cohesive community, where the social aspect of life is ten-fold better than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. I wanted to show this other side—the hustling, bustling, smiling aspect of this community.

What inspired you to document these young surfers?

In 2015, on my first trip to Brazil, I met these surfers at the English school [where] I was teaching. The kids were the most chilled out, attentive, and hilarious out of everyone we were teaching. It hooked me. I thought, “What are they doing to these kids to produce these tiny, little, hilarious citizens?”

These kids cared about the environment, cared about each other, had clarity in their heads, and did it in an incredibly organic way. Their attitude toward life is, “Hey, let’s just make it happen, because it’s fun and we love it.” That’s what inspired me to do the documentary.

Tell us about the Surf Association of Rocinha (ASR).

ASR operates like a family. You’ve got a group of more experienced guys aged 30 to 45 years old, and a group of 25 to 30 kids with age ranges from eight to 23. ASR acts as a big support network for the kids. If they break their boards or need a new one, [ASR] will fix it for them for free. If they need a wetsuit, they can go there and get one for free. Anything that is donated to ASR, they immediately distribute to the kids that need it the most.

What environmental issues plague Rocinha?

Through the development of Rocinha and the local area, so much pollution has started to uncontrollably go into the water. A pipe was built at the point break where all the surfers surf, and geographically there is no place better to surf on the beach. There’s open sewers that run through the entire favela, so plastic and anything that dies is flushed down these streams to the surf spot, including rats and dogs, syringes, and endless amounts of plastic.

They are trying to solve the issue from the roots up. People are doing regular clean-ups of the beach and organizations are working on recycling schemes in the favela. Other groups are trying to educate children about the situation.

Why do you think surfing is important?

For these boys, they are faced with hyper-masculinity—having to live up to this big, strong stereotype. It’s a difficult thing for many kids, and I think surfing lets them escape that for a little bit.

You can really get sucked into the pace and intensity of the community. You smell food being cooked 24/7. You hear people screaming, parties, motorbikes, cars, buildings towering above you, and you rarely get that space to think and relax. For these boys, there’s gun shots going off in their community, fireworks going off to signal to other traffickers that the police are coming—it is nonstop.

It is difficult for them to let their guard down, so going to the beach and being in the water, [they] are away from all of that, surrounded by the horizon, mountains, and palm trees. It just gives them that clarity to think a little and be a normal kid.

What are your hopes for future generations in Rocinha?

I hope Rocinha becomes an example of what it means to be the best surfers, leading social and environmental ambassadors for the rest of the country. These kids are preaching their love for the sport, and when you have kids with such strong, driven, determined character, they can do incredible things.

I’d also love to go back and help them push surfing for girls, which is something some of the older surfers want to make happen. At first, it was all about the boys. Hopefully, next time it will be all about the girls.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Lauren O'Brien is a digital news writer at National Geographic, covering topics related to culture and exploration.

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