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04.09.08

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Theirs: The Bra Boys watch the Sydney reef break they call 'Ours.'

'Bra Boys'

Australian surf documentary shows the dark side of surfing.

By Garrett Wheeler


From the opening scenes of the Australian surf documentary Bra Boys, it's clear that this film is not your typical Endless Summer beach flick--nor are the people on the screen your average sun-bleached surf bros. Instead, the film begins with an eye-opening glimpse into the bloody reality of an ongoing conflict between surfers and the harsh community they live in. Television newscasts report "surf gang violence," while images of destruction flicker across the screen: a fistfight, a large brawl and finally the aftermath of a fatal shooting that leaves one man dead and many more numbed by the news of a tragedy hitting so close to home. Bra Boys is the story of a place, the eastern Australian suburb of Maroubra, and the surfers who live there--the Bra Boys. Actor Russell Crowe narrates the film, but aside from his celebrity presence, Bra Boys is a relatively no-frills look into the inner workings of one of the fiercest surfing communities on the planet. In a short appearance by Kelly Slater, the eight-time world champ says simply, "Maroubra is one of the most localized places I've ever surfed." Another term for it would be "territorial."

But the scope of Bra Boys extends well beyond the sport of surfing. Social psychologists would have no trouble identifying the source of Maroubra's ills, and it's clear that the impoverished community suffers from the usual poverty-related plagues of crime, drugs and violence.

The main characters of the movie are the Abberton brothers--Sunny, Jai and Koby. Youngest brother Dakota Abberton is only briefly mentioned. The brothers are born into a broken household, with a heroin-addicted mother and an abusive stepfather. From the time they can walk, the Abbertons are on their own.

Fortunately, the boys' grandmother, known affectionately in the community as "Ma," is willing to take them, and anyone else who might need refuge, off the streets and into a safe home. Along with Ma's house, the Abbertons and their mates take solace in the nearby beach, surfing and playing in the waves whenever possible. Soon they name themselves the "Bra Boys" (after "Maroubra"), tattooing the moniker across their chests and backs.

Like other "surf gangs" in the area, the Bra Boys take it upon themselves to protect their turf by whatever means necessary. Violence flares as rival gangs clash with the surfers, culminating in a series of riots in nearby Cronulla in 2005. Though the Bra Boys have no initial involvement in the racially motivated riot between Lebanese and white Australians, they are quickly targeted by association. Through a series of well-publicized meetings with other uninvolved groups, they help ease the mounting tension, but the end result is clear: the Bra Boys are in the spotlight, for better or worse.

In true form, the Bra Boys establish themselves in the surfing world as some of the hardest-charging hell-men in Australia and the world. Their mastery of one of the most dangerous waves on earth, a wave they aptly name "Ours," seems to further embody the hard-core nature of their lifestyle.

Criticism of the film has not been scant. The biggest complaint seems to be a lack of perspective--and it's true, other than a few police press conferences, there are no accounts from anyone other than those associated with the Bra Boys themselves. The Cronulla incident, like other events documented in the film, presents the ongoing friction between the Bra Boys and rival gangs, as well as law enforcement, through a decidedly subjective lens. The fact that the film is co-directed, written and produced by Sunny Abberton certainly explains the lack of outside opinion.

But in spite of the criticisms, nobody can deny the appeal or popularity of Bra Boys. Since its debut in Australia last March, the film has risen to blockbuster status, breaking the record for Australia's highest-grossing non-IMAX documentary and best-ever opening day sales for an Australian documentary. In Santa Cruz, the film's relevance is obvious. The localized factions of the East and West sides of town hint at the same surf-gang phenomenon that Bra Boys exposes, though on a smaller scale. We'll let you draw the parallels.


Movie Times BRA BOYS (R; 90 min.), a documentary co-directed and written by Sunny Abberton, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.


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