Tracking Maya Gabeira’s quest to surf one of the world’s biggest waves in Nazaré, Portugal, Stephanie Johnes’ documentary “Maya and the Wave” splits its time between standard-issue documentary about Gabeira’s rise in the community and insightful critique of how institutionalized misogyny in the surfing world has tried to diminish Gabeira’s contributions to the sport. Featuring some incredible visuals, and using Gabeira to tell her own story, it’s an entertaining and informative exploration of the professional surfing community
The enormous waves in Nazaré act as both a framing device within the story and Gabeira’s white whale. The daughter of Brazilian politician Fernando Gabeira — whose life was the basis of 1997’s “Four Days in September” — Maya turned professional at 17, surfing alongside her mentor, Carlos Burle, and becoming sponsored by Red Bull. Never given full credit for her abilities, in 2013, she decided to surf the waves at Nazaré, a small village that has quickly become known for their preternaturally large waves — often over 60 feet high and resembling something like a moving wall.
As most of this information is given out in the first third of the film, it’s not exactly a surprise when Gabeira sustains multiple injuries after a failed first attempt, eventually being saved by Burle and leading to a protracted recovery process that eventually stretches into years. Johnes’ film may begin as a more-or-less standardized sports doc, using other surfers to contextualize Maya’s ability on the water and her rise in the rankings. But, halfway through — coinciding with that gnarly injury — the film becomes more about Maya’s recovery and the outsized expectations placed on a female in the sport. Both sections work well in relation to each other, but the latter half is ultimately more focused and interesting.
Her recovery is documented by both Red Bull and Johnes simultaneously, creating an odd spectacle as she essentially play-acts her warm-up and training routines for a Red Bull documentary, all while Johnes’s camera watches the action unfold. The weird meta-ness of this showcases how her recovery is commercialized and commodified. Red Bull wants to position her narrative as overcoming the wave that almost killed her, but as the surgeries and years pile up, they also become impatient about her output, unwilling to accept her own timeline. Needless to say, Red Bull doesn’t come away looking too great.
That Gabeira eventually surfs the wave isn’t so much a spoiler as it’s the first step towards a professional reclamation for her. Receiving little credit for such a feat, she begins to petition the Guinness to split surfing world records into male and female categories, sparking an online movement to consider just how male-dominated the surfing world is.
While the film brings up these problems — sponsorships, ingrained sexism, etc. — Johnes filters them through Gabeira’s uplifting narrative. If these latter sections are perhaps cursory in their treatment of the social and economic systems that try to keep Gabeira in place, they are also the most absorbing. This is simply because we see Gabeira have to navigate the physical toll of surfing on top of the emotional work required to get even a little bit of recognition for her achievements in a system that is determined to marginalize her. While the ending is obvious, “Maya and the Wave” still offers a fascinating exploration of Gabeira’s empowering recovery and determination. [B]