Maya and the Wave
(USA, 95 min.)
Dir. Stephanie Johnes
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
“She went from zero to 100 in a year. Making money, billboards. Beautiful girl…nice tits, nice ass, beautiful skin, nice smile,” Carlos Burle says when discussing Maya Gabeira’s rise to success in the documentary Maya and the Wave. Burle, a professional big wave surfer and Gabeira’s first mentor and coach, perhaps didn’t purposely intend to diminish Gabiera’s skills and talents, but his words exemplify how many in the big wave surfing world view her.
Although Gabeira owns several records in the world of big wave surfing, fans and her peers seem to want to always reduce her achievements to the superficial. In Stephanie Johnes’ latest film, Maya and the Wave, the misogyny Gabeira has faced her entire career is explored within an intimate look behind her return to the sport after suffering a devastating accident in 2013.
Through archival footage, we see Gabeira pick up a surfboard at age 13 in her native Brazil and turn pro at 17, quickly proving herself to be one of the best big wave surfers. Burle notes that Gabeira didn’t have a natural talent for surfing; instead, it was her work ethic that put her a level above her contemporaries. It’s the same work ethic that would help her recover from the lowest point of her career.
The focal point of Maya and the Wave was a brutal wipe out that nearly killed her. The incident occurred in Nazaré, Portugal where Gabeira was competing with Burle as her tow partner (someone who quite literally tows a surfer out to a wave on a jet ski and is on hand to assist should any emergencies occur). Gabeira was pulled underneath a massive wave, nearly drowning. She suffered extensive injuries to her back and ankle requiring several surgeries and a long recovery period.
In the years since, Burle and Gabeira have been at odds about what actually happened in the water that day. Though Burle was interviewed for the film, Maya and the Wave doesn’t venture too deeply into this conflict. Other surfers who were witness to the rescue of Gabeira do mention that after emergency vehicles arrived, Burle, rather callously, simply carried on surfing. Defending his behaviour, Burle explains there wasn’t anything else for him to do in that situation, so why not keep riding the wave?
Apart from this exchange, Johnes chooses to direct the film’s attention to Gabeira’s recovery. Focusing on moments during her rehabilitation, from needing to pull over the car to vomit post-surgery to her physiotherapy treatments, to her voicing her sheer frustration and impatience, Johnes ensures that Maya and the Wave doesn’t become a gossipy film engaging in a he-said/she-said battle. Rather, because of Johnes’ editorial decisions, the film becomes a story for young athletes (especially girls) to be inspired by.
The toll professional athletics has on the body is something us mere mortals will never fully appreciate. Similarly, the desire and motivation to continue playing in a sport after such extreme setbacks are foreign to most of us and admirable to all. Johnes does a great job of painting a portrait that gets us one step closer to understanding what drives an athlete at the top of their game and the amount of work that it takes.
In addition to giving audiences a glimpse inside Gabeira’s life and psyche, Johnes shows off the sport itself. Along with Johnes, Jorge Leal, João Pedro Plácido and Dudu Miranda round out the film’s cinematography team. The group captures stunning footage of Nazaré and its monstrous waves. The minuscule size of the surfers and the accompanying jet skis relative to the emerald, green walls of water behind them demonstrates the humility required in the sport.
Maya and the Wave could have been a run of the mill sports documentary heightened somewhat through a feminist lens. What sets it apart, though, is the compelling narrative of Gabeira’s journey from a pre-teen discovering surfing to a pro-athlete hellbent on making a triumphant return to the sport that nearly killed her. Gabeira’s story and her character make for an engaging film that will be a joy for her existing fans and should earn her some new ones.