Filmmaker and cinematographer Stephanie Johnes’ new documentary Maya and the Wave traces Brazilian surfing champion Maya Gabeira as she sets out to break a world record in the Portuguese town of Nazaré, which is renowned for its big waves. While overcoming personal and professional setbacks — ranging from issues with her sponsor to injuries and ensuing surgeries to a nearly fatal experience in the ocean — she also eventually finds herself fighting with her own sport’s governing body for recognition.
The film follows Gabeira as she deals with sexism in the male-dominated sport of big-wave surfing, being undermined and second-guessed at almost every turn and relying on her high-profile family — her mother is fashion designer Yamê Reis, and her father is famous Brazilian politician Fernando Gabeira — for support.
Johnes, who was cinematographer on the 2012 doc Venus and Serena, first connected with Gabeira as part of a TV series that featured female filmmakers profiling female athletes.
“I just put my research hat on and considered every kind of sport and every kind of athlete, and then I thought, ‘Well, surfing, a beach, that sounds great,’” Johnes tells Realscreen with a chuckle. “I was really gambling on Maya and her talent at that point, because she was very successful in 2012 but obviously hadn’t hit the heights that she has now. I just met her and I thought, ‘Oh, she’s a great character, she’s personable, she’s making herself available to do a documentary.’ That was the decision-making process.”
Realscreen spoke with Johnes (pictured below) ahead of Maya and the Wave‘s screening at TIFF about the film, the relationship between director and subject, the challenges of shooting in the ocean, and the gambles inherent to documentary filmmaking.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Maya’s relationship with the broader surfing community, and particularly the men, is a bit tense sometimes. Did you encounter any pushback from any of the men in the film?
Stephanie Johnes: None at all, because I was genuinely interviewing the men who had been a part of Maya’s life and her career. No, I didn’t have an objective to make, you know, a feminist film, that wasn’t really the point… I would love to say I’m a brilliant director and I created these performances, but no, these guys are speaking honestly, with their own words about what they did and how they think and feel about her. I think it’s just naturally indicative of the attitudes that a lot of men have about women and, in this specific case, about Maya… Unfortunately it’s just a very misogynist sport. And it’s a magnification, I think, of what generally happens in culture.
We see a lot of vulnerability from Maya in the film. What was the process like in terms of establishing that trust with her to open up and be honest about what she was dealing with, both physically and mentally?
Johnes: Maya is unique in that she can be a very open person, and I really admire her willingness to share her mental health struggles, because a lot of people hide that, and they’re ashamed. And I think she realized that that was important for people to see, because a lot of people struggle with mental health issues and it was really brave of her to be willing to open up like that.
As far as the filmmaker–subject relationship, it’s such an interesting and complicated relationship. We started just as a director and a surfer, and ultimately we became good friends, which helps a lot. And we just get along as people, which also helps a lot. I’ve worked as a cinematographer on various projects, and it matters — the temperament of the people [you work with]. So that worked out really, really nicely.
What was your approach to making a film that’s about an athlete, but in many ways isn’t really a sports documentary? Were you concerned about how much sport-related material to include?
Johnes: Well, as a director and a cinematographer you want something that’s going to be visually spectacular — so, all the better if you’re choosing big-wave surfing! I think many, many humans are interesting, but one whose environment is like 60-, 70-, 80-, 100-foot waves, that’s just going to be a great film. There are a lot of magnificent stories and people but if you have someone who’s in this phenomenally, spectacularly cinematic environment, you’re going to have a prettier film. And I love sports, and I am an athlete, and so I just kind of lean towards things that have visual interest.
The film has some beautiful shots of the ocean and Maya surfing. Were there any technical challenges that shooting on the water presented?
Johnes: It’s extremely hard, and actually, when I started making the film, I signed myself up for a water cinematography course in Hawaii. And I jumped in the water with my camera and after about two days, I realized there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this [laughs].
So I got to know people who are really the legends of surf cinematography, which is a huge genre on its own, and I realized that these guys have spent decades of their lives filming waves, filming the ocean, and some of them very specifically in Nazaré. There’s a lot of coordination that happens, because they’re filming with drones, they’re filming on jet skis, the long-lens work is really technically not my specialty. So I had to have people help with that, and I’m so proud that their work is in the film, because they are really best-in-class of surf cinematography.
Maya goes on quite the journey in the film, but was there ever any concern while making it about what might happen with her and what note you might end on? Were you worried about where things might end up?
Johnes: Well, yeah, for sure, because at the very outset, it was like, “Okay, we have a really interesting sport, we have a great athlete, but this could go nowhere.” And that’s why you cannot raise money for a film like this in the beginning. They’re like, “What’s the story? Where’s this gonna go?” And it takes 10 years… So yeah, the gamble was giant, and we got lucky. But in the beginning I didn’t know, I just thought, “Okay, she’s talented, I really like her, this seems like the right person to film” — and then she makes a world record, and then she makes another world record, and you’re like, “Oh, I think I chose this well.”
Was there a point that you felt like you were okay? Was it the world record?
Johnes: Yeah, well, that was really her goal, that was the life goal. And the thing that was kind of freaky is that — we didn’t get into weeds on it — but there was no [big-wave surfing] world record for women, so it was not only having to have a performance that was worthy, but it was also the structure of figuring out the category and how that would even be established. So she had to do the two things: she had to do the performance, and also establish this category for women.
And [so] she made the world record, and everyone who respected her realized it was the world record. And we were like, “Oh, great, the movie’s done.” But then the truth is, unless the record is recognized… We can’t finish a movie saying “We say Maya set the world record,” it doesn’t work. So she did have to do that fight of making the petition and getting the support to have that accomplishment recognized. At that point, we thought, okay, once it was recognized, “There’s the story.”
Maya and the Wave makes its TIFF premiere on Friday, September 9.
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