Although the field of women’s athletics has evolved and expanded significantly in recent years, it still seems nearly impossible for even the most elite competitor to garner more than a tiny fraction of the recognition that elite athletes are routinely accorded. That equation certainly seems to be validated in Maya and the Wave, Stephanie Johne’s portrait of leading big wave surfer Maya Gabeira. This festival favorite (which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival before Doc NYC took off) has several gaps in narrative and contextualization that make it seem like a less than complete picture of the protagonist’s career to date. Still, the film more than fulfills its primary goal of providing an inspirational role model and tons of fantastic surfing footage, a combination that will delight most viewers.
It opens with majestic waves nearly 100 feet high breaking off the resort town of Nazare on the west coast of Portugal. This is not only her current home, but also the site of Gabeira’s greatest triumphs – and her biggest setback. Born and raised in Rio, she started surfing at 13, competed at 15, then turned pro at 17. In terms of awards, prizes and other high-profile perks, “she went from zero to 100 in a year,” according to a Brazilian Carlos Burle, her first major mentor and coach. Nonetheless, his wisdom was doubted by many when he first made them part of a Tow-in Big Wave team.
What we see on screen is always engaging. But in her first feature film in 15 years, cinematographer Johnes doesn’t organize this material with ideal consistency. A timeline of Gabeira’s achievements is poorly represented in the edit, leading us to hear male surfers doubting her skills after it seems she’s already proven herself by winning many championships. Is this just sexism or does the film omit incidents that would explain their skepticism? Nothing is ever heard from other female surfers either, which not only narrows the film’s perspective but also gives the distorted impression that the subject remains a single representative of her gender in the big wave realm.
The key event that the naysayers took as “evidence” was a near-fatal obliteration in Nazare in 2013 — no less than Laird Hamilton publicly stated, “Maya doesn’t have the capabilities to be in conditions like that.” It was considered minor Wonder Burle was even able to get her ashore alive (if only just), and a long period of hospitalization, surgery, chronic pain and forced rest ensued. But while many expected this to be the end, her ever-intense dedication to training orchestrated a recovery and comeback that eventually led her back to Nazare. There she rode the biggest wave ever surfed by a woman – and broke that record again two years later, over the biggest wave ridden by anyone, male or female, in 2020.
Like many pro athletes, Gabeira seems so focused on her sport that there’s not much else to read of her seemingly pleasant, unpretentious personality – either that, or she’s just really good at presenting a relatable surface to the ubiquitous cameras. We get a limited glimpse into her personal life, specifically a privileged family background. (Her father Fernando Gabeira is one of the most famous figures in politics and literature in Brazil, a chapter of his own story became Bruno Barreto’s Oscar-nominated feature film “Four Days in September” in 1997.) In Sebastian Steudtner she found a professional and private partner another high-level big wave surfer. Its support is painted as a contrast to the association with Burle, another aspect here whose complexity remains rather obscure.
It’s difficult to separate the contradictions in this platonic relationship from what both sides are saying, as Gabeira is vague on the subject, while Burle appears to be alternately her trusty booster and a surprisingly critical voice in interview clips with unclear chronology. It’s certainly striking when he assesses her characteristics as not just athletic but also somewhat crass-looking — a sexualized look that’s reinforced by some of her sports media and endorsement deal images. Many were also stunned when, after dragging her unconscious to Nazare Beach, he simply left her to the doctors and went back to surfing. Such discordant tones raise questions that Maya and the Wave prefers to avoid.
For her part, Gabeira shrugs: “I’m a woman in a man’s world” … but it seems unlikely that these male colleagues would disarmingly admit that big wave surfing “wouldn’t be exhilarating if I wasn’t really scared”. The drive pushing away her past fear is less tangible, although it does manifest when she is so upset that her aforementioned records have not been included in the Guinness Book that she files a public petition to demand that they introduce a category for women largest wave surfed.
Arguably, drone photography – as well as the relatively new phenomenon of big wave riding itself – can be credited with providing the kind of stunning shots that were once precious and rare in surf documentaries but are now a regular occurrence. However, they are no less impressive for their greater frequency. Johnes and three other cameramen film numerous sequences in which the juxtaposition of tiny people in wetsuits and a mammoth wave inspires awe and a certain primal terror. Elsewhere, the documentary’s production values are also top-notch, although an original score of Turtle’s indie dream-pop style Rock is a little soporific to accompany such stunning visuals.