TIFF 2022 | Maya and the Wave (Stephanie Johnes, US) — TIFF Docs

By Madeleine Wall

Nazare, Portugal boasts of having the largest waves in the world. Averaging around 50 feet in height, they often end up going up to 80, with 100 as the highest ever recorded. Crowds gather along the shoreline to see these massive behemoths rise and fall, and often catch sight of small figures, on jet skis and surfboards, hurtling along. Nazare is a major international calling ground for big wave surfing, and Stephanie Johnes’ documentary is a profile of one of those small figures racing against nature—Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira, whose rise, fall, and rise again gives the film its shape.

Although a world champion in her field, Gabeira faces challenges beyond the ocean. Big wave surfing is an extremely male milieu, and even at her highest point of success as a surfer she is dismissed and ignored by her colleagues and the institutions around them. When the film begins in 2011, Gabeira is in her mid-twenties and on the top of the world, on the cover of sports magazines and with a coveted sponsorship from Red Bull. But after a near-death experience attempting to master one of the waves at Nazare, she faces years of recovery and disillusionment. As Gabeira recovers without institutional support, it is clear that Johnes’ camera is the only one remaining with her, and the filmmaker gets access to moments with her subject’s family and doctors as she works towards what seems, at times, the impossible goal of mastering the wave that nearly killed her. 

Typical in narrative structure and form—i.e., pretty much what you’d expect from a sports doc about one of the only female stars in her field—Maya and the Wave braids together a series of talking heads, extreme sports footage, and images of difficult medical appointments. Still, the colossal nature of these waves and Gabeira’s singular purpose are inspiring; Johnes understands that focusing on the small details of the story makes the awesomeness of nature itself all the more overwhelming.