DOC NYC / Maya and the Wave : Exclusive Interview with Director Stephanie Johnes

DOC NYC / Maya and the Wave : Exclusive Interview with Director Stephanie Johnes

Synopsis : Filmmaker Stephanie Johnes’ thrilling documentary follows world-champion Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira, who battles against monster waves as well as chauvinism in the field of competitive surfing. Maya Gabeira grew up in Brazil with a dream to surf competitively. Like any surfer, she had to overcome the hazards of the ocean through training and discipline. But she was also forced to confront deep chauvinism in the male-dominated sport as naysayers second-guessed her every move. In Maya and the Wave, we follow Gabeira on a quest to break a world record in the Portuguese town of Nazaré, known for its big waves. Filmmaker Stephanie Johnes follows Maya over several years as she perseveres through setbacks, injuries, and a near-death experience to pursue her goal. The film gains an intimacy with Maya and her family that’s rarely attained in profiles of elite athletes. We see her draw strength from her mother, the fashion designer Yamê Reis, and her father, Fernando Gabeira, whose life in radical politics was depicted in the Oscar-nominated film Four Days in September. We watch Maya navigate the choppy waters of the sports business and the tensions that arise over sponsorship, press coverage, and judging. She endures constant undermining that reflects what happens in many fields where women need to work harder than men to get equal recognition. The surfing footage is thrilling and harrowing in equal measure, with aquatic landscapes that command a theatrical experience. When Maya gets on the board, you may find your own toes curling in anticipation of a wild ride.

Genre: Biography, Documentary, Sports
Original Language:English
Director: Stephanie Johnes
Producer:Stephanie Johnes


Q: Stephanie, you are the DP for the film, “Venus and Serena,” and “Double-Time.” How did you get to know Maya in the first place, and how’s that experience prompted you to make the film?

SJ: Maya Gabeira is one of the few women that competes in this sport. I met her through a friend and then she invited me on a surf trip. We started from there.

Q: Maya was born in Brazil but Rio de Janeiro doesn’t have big waves. Of course, she’s traveled around to compete all over the world. But where does she usually practice? Does the surfing community in that location support her effort to practice there? 

SJ: Nazaré was discovered to have the biggest waves in the world. Before they discovered Nazaré in Portugal, they used to travel around to different places like California, Hawaii and South Africa. Then when Garrett McNamara came to Nazaré, everybody realized that this place had the biggest wave in the world. For the people who are serious about making world records and to achieve the biggest goals in surfing, they all decided to stay in Nazaré because they realized it’s going to be the place where they can make the world records. Maya lives there full time, and she only focuses on that place. She used to travel, and now she mostly surfs in Nazaré.

Q: The relationship between Maya and coach Carlos [Burle] is interesting. He’s shown her the techniques, but most importantly, how to build her mentality — especially after her life-threatening accident. 

SJ: He was an early mentor of hers, and was tasked with training the first woman to really enter the sport in a professional way. It’s like many relationships that have different sides and layers. Over the course of the film, you see his attitude towards her change. She also realizes that maybe he doesn’t believe in her anymore. She also resolved to believe in herself. That’s what’s so beautiful about her courage. Whether the outside world supports her or not, she just powers through to achieve her goals. But yeah, he’s one of the most interesting characters in the film, and one of the important relationship stories in it.

Q: Did her accident happen during the competition or practice? The rescue team took a long time to get there. 

SJ: We didn’t go into detail on this in the movie. The actual competitions are very rare in big wave surfing. There are very few of them because it’s such a huge logistic to produce. Most of big wave surfing happens like a free surf, and they do coordinate with rescue preparation, and crowds on the beach, and doctors. But the free-surf kind of big wave surfing, the main goal is to have beautiful photographs and videos that make sponsors happy. That’s the context of big wave surfing. In that moment, it was one of the first years — in the early years that they were surfing in Nazaré, and they hadn’t — like they say in the film — they hadn’t totally dialed and organized their rescue system. They didn’t understand the location very well, and they weren’t perfectly prepared for all the risks of surfing this giant wave. That’s part of why that accident and rescue were so bad. It was a new place for them. They had never surfed there before.

Q: When she had her accident and had to recover, she needed to practice again. During that process, her sponsor, Red Bull, dropped out. The sponsorship differs when it comes to male surfers versus female surfers. What did she think about that?

SJ: I don’t think there’s a difference with regard to sponsorship because sponsors just want visibility. But as far as the community reaction to an accident — and we don’t go that deep into this in the film — male surfers have accidents all the time in big wave surfing. It’s such an extremely risky sport that it’s normal. And like Maya’s mom says in the film, “When the men have accidents, they’re celebrated as heroes and being brave. “Look at the rescue” and “Wow, he has so much courage.” In Maya’s case, when she had an accident, all the community is saying, “Oh, she’s a girl, she shouldn’t have been there. She wasn’t prepared. She’s not good enough.” There’s definitely a different attitude towards women when they have a fall in big wave surfing than there is towards men.

Q: Is she back with Red Bull again? 

SJ: No. They terminated her contract just a month before she hit the world record.

Q: Laird Hamilton was attacking her and Carlos when she had the accident; but he just seemed concerned. What was the reaction of male surfers after that accident when she went back to the sea and won the competition? 

SJ: Most of her colleagues are men, so some really respect her. A lot of them really want to surf with her, because she’s an excellent jet-ski driver and one-half of the sport of the big-wave surfing is to be able to drive the jet-ski well. She’s very well-respected for that skill. So when she’s the person driving the ski and the other person is surfing, they want to surf with her.  It’s like any sport — she has people who respect her and want to work with her. Then she has people who don’t respect her and don’t want to work with her. A lot of times, it’s not about skill. It’s about prejudice, petty jealousies, and tribalism. There are many layers to all those relationships.

Q: Maya’s family is very supportive. The support she gets is immense. But they’re also aware that it’s a very dangerous sport. How do they talk with each other at home?  

SJ: The family’s support is very important. She obviously has a very radical father who understood that she wanted to do something extreme, and she should follow her dreams and do it. It took her mother a little longer to accept Maya’s lifestyle. But they are a huge support for her, and very important in her life and in the movie. I think they are a very unique family in that way.

Q: Her father, Fernando, joined the resistance during the military dictatorship. 

SJ: Yeah, we’re making a link in the film between her father’s courage and her courage. There’s certainly a connection there.

Q: When Maya was asked if there was a difference between physical and intellectual courage, Maya said no, absolutely not, because physical courage comes from your mind. What fascinated you about her mentality while you were filming her? 

SJ: She truly has the mind of a champion. Yes, she’s very physically fit and strong, but her real strength is her mental strength. That’s something she has cultivated over many years. It’s a willingness to do everything in her power to achieve her goals and ignore the naysayers, and remain positive in horrible circumstances. It’s a pretty stunning mindset.

Q: Throughout the film there are a lot of emotional scenes, but at the same time, you require some technical scenes as well. What was the challenge for you in shooting this film?

SJ: I learned very early in the process, that I wasn’t going to be the best person to film the surf and action, because that’s a very specialized skill and there are people who really had spent decades cultivating it. So I was lucky to meet a lot of the cinematographers that were doing that work already. The surfing and the ocean cinematography are not mine. My specialty is following the story and the cinema verité moments, and capturing those emotional scenes. The challenge of that is really the longevity of the story, the timeline, because you’re following a story unfolding in real time and you never know what’s going to happen next. So you’re trying to capture moments that will be relevant to the story and hoping that it goes somewhere. You really have no idea what’s coming next. It’s like, oh, that’s why it took 10 years, because we’re literally following her life as it unfolds.

Q: How did you discover those photographers of surfers, through Maya or through someone like Stacy Peralta, who has been shooting surfing films? 

SJ: Actually, surfers have very close relationships with the photographers because, obviously, if they surf a wave and no one captures it, then — nothing. Career-wise, it doesn’t serve them if they don’t film surfing. But really, the point is to have beautiful imagery for the sponsors and their career purposes. They have many relationships with people that they regularly work with. Nazaré is a small town, and there’s about a dozen people that have just focused on ocean and surf cinema in that town. So they’re pretty easy to find.

Q: How do they measure the waves? I heard they use computers.

SJ: There’s not a lot of science on it. We didn’t want to go into the weeds on this in the film because it would have taken a long time to explain. But there’s no real standard protocol for measuring waves. The World Surf League (WSL) is the organization responsible for giving out awards and measuring waves, but they do not release or share their protocols as to how they measure waves. It’s a bit of a mystery for surfers. There’s a lot of debate, of course, and different opinions but there are a few, very few, scientists that actually use software and different geometric approaches to estimating wave size. So as far as we know, that’s the best work that is being done, but it’s very rudimentary.

In the case of Maya’s second world record, it was the first time in the history of the sport, that the surf league enlisted the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in La Jolla [California] to do a proper measurement of the wave that she surfed. It’s interesting that for the first time in the history of the sport, they took the measurements so seriously when Maya was about to be awarded the second world record. They used a lot of science on that particular instance. There’s a whole other movie about measuring waves but we didn’t spend time on this one.

Q: For the Big Waver in 2018, she only got third place. That might be the factor that weighed into that.

SJ: No, it was misogyny and prejudice against her. It was the fact that no one was ready to acknowledge that she was surfing on par with them. They just were not. Because even with the naked eye and look at the waves that were presented on those awards, you could see that she had done something phenomenal and they willfully chose to obscure it. You can call it an error or a technical issue. But I think it’s pretty clear that it was structural [cultural?], not necessarily technical.

Q: What do you want audiences to take away from this film?

SJ: The main goal for me is to bear witness to the truth that women face a lot of challenges and obstacles in certain environments. It’s true and real that prejudice exists, but there are also ways to overcome it by perseverance and by being hardworking and honest.

Check out more of Nobuhiro’s articles.

Comment (0)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here