Big Vs Small


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Big Vs Small
"Where other films might emphasise skill and natural ability, it's patience and persistence that are shown to pay off here." | Photo: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

Surf documentaries often appear in "adrenaline" strand of festivals, full of crashing breakers and risk-taking but though this documentary from Minna Dufton does feature impressive surf camerawork from Tim Bonython during its course, it is as much concerned with how its subject Joana Andrade is still dealing with ripples from her past as it is with the giant waves she masters in the present.

Andrade is Portugal's first female big wave rider, a feat that is emphasised by her diminutive 5ft 1in stature. Where many documentaries about sportsmen and women emphasise a risk-taking mentality and devil-may-care attitude, she is much more circumspect.

Copy picture

As an intertitle at the start of the film notes, bravery is less to do with the absence of fear than the conquering of it. Her latest would-be conquest are the giants of the western Portugese town of Nazaré - a resort that has a canyon beneath the sea resulting in unparalleled waves, including the 80-footer that carried Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa into the record books in 2017.

When Andrande speaks about surfing, it's not the rush she emphasises, but tranquility. "This is a place I feel at peace," she says. Dufton's film gradually reveals that one of the things she is seeking peace from is a trauma from her past. There's no voyeuristic lingering on details, but there doesn't need to be as it is evident that Andrade is still psychologically working through aspects of what happened. In preparation for returning to Nazaré, she wants to get a better handle on her fear of drowning and so, travels to Finland to take some instruction from free-diver Johanna Nordblad.

It's here that Dufton's documentary really comes into its own as Nordblad is just as inspirational as Andrade, insisting that anyone can learn something new. She can hold her breath for upwards of six minutes and aims to help Andrade overcome her fear of drowning by teaching her how to keep her calm while swimming under the ice.

Compared to surfing, this sort of free-diving is the polar - and Polar - opposite. There are no crashing waves here, just icy cold waters and darkness - and Nordblad has an almost Zen-like calm, something you can see Andrade also begin to channel as the training continues and their friendship grows. These chillier sections are shot with grace by Sakke Kantosalo.

"My strength comes from my head," Andrade says early in the film but, of course, our head is where our fears lie too, something that Nordblad recognises and bends to her own will. Both of these women are inspiration - although Dufton perhaps pushes this idea a little bit much when she shows a group of older ladies who, quite frankly, seem to have inspired themselves in later life, with the eager to soar score from Riversound Music also a bit on the pushy side.

But where other films might emphasise skill and natural ability, it's patience and persistence that are shown to pay off here, with Andrade's mum also ruminating on the way that circumstances and societal expectations can shape a life as much as an individual's personality. In a world where many women still find themselves having to "buck the trend" in order to follow their dreams, watching Andrade and Nordblad, you're likely to be tempted to dive into something new yourself.

Reviewed on: 02 Mar 2021
Share this with others on...
Big Vs Small packshot
Profile of big-wave surfer Joana Andrade.
Amazon link

Director: Minna Dufton

Writer: Minna Dufton

Year: 2020

Runtime: 76 minutes

Country: Finland

Search database:

If you like this, try:

Ride The Wave