‘Mad Dogs’: Santa Barbara Review

Roberto Studart’s documentary profiles the gonzo boarders who head to the Maui break known as “Jaws” for the ultimate surfing experience.

Big-wave surfing doesn’t get much more gnarly than the breaks found at locations as diverse as Mavericks in northern California, Waimea Bay in Hawai’i and Brazil’s Maresias Beach, where surfers typically challenge waves reaching 20-plus feet. Following the advent of “tow-in” techniques in the mid-1990s, employing helicopters and Jet Skis to navigate surfers into monster swells, it became possible to catch waves exceeding 30 feet in height.

Many thought that landmark development would stand as the epitome of surfing bravado, until three Brazilian expats decided to take on the Maui north shore behemoth called Jaws with only their boards, hand-paddling out to the break. Known as the Mad Dogs, they wrote a new chapter in surfing history, as chronicled in Roberto Studart’s fascinating but frequently scattered feature documentary. A sure-draw for extreme sports fans, Mad Dogs may prove too fanatical for general audiences, leaving VOD and online platforms as the most likely curators.

The Bottom Line

What it lacks in polish it makes up for in thrills.

The Hawaiian monster breaks initially favored by some of the pioneers of tow-in surfing, including Buzzy Kerbox, Laird Hamilton and Darrick Doerner, were cresting too far offshore for the boarders to safely reach by paddling out. So instead they enlisted Jet Skis, and later helicopters, to tow them into swells popping up at locations like Outer Log Cabins in Oahu and Maui’s Pe’ahi surf spot, known locally as Jaws and widely considered the site of the world’s most massive waves. Danilo Cuoto, Marcio Freire and Yuri Soledade, Brazilians who migrated to Hawai’i in search of perfect boarding conditions in the ‘90s, took the big-wave surfers’ challenge a notch higher, resolving to hand-paddle out to Jaws, while refusing to use support vehicles to assist with tow-ins or rescues.

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Their audacity at first created alarm and then envy in the world surfing community, as they literally risked their lives to catch waves sometimes exceeding 50 vertical feet and attracted significant media attention in the process. The trio’s exploits soon drew competition from more famous, better-funded athletes with established media profiles and sponsorship contracts, threatening to eclipse the Mad Dogs’ accomplishments.

Studart, a Brazilian TV and commercials director-producer, shot his second feature documentary over the 2015 winter season in Hawai’i with unfettered access to the Mad Dog group and their trove of personal archival photos and video footage. Contemporary interviews with local surf legends and experts lend perspective to the Brazilians’ accomplishments, widely acknowledged as unprecedented. Studart also indulges speculation that Cuoto in particular was shut out of major competitions to make way for better-known athletes, a sentiment that isn’t well supported by documentation. 

Michel Gomes’ surf photography, much of it shot in challenging marine conditions, displays a raw immediacy that captures some stunning big-wave feats, but the quality is too often marred by poor positioning in the water and the sheer size of swells that obscure the action on nearby wave crests. Studart’s filmmaking technique fractures timelines and provides insufficient background on some of his chosen topics, rendering the material less accessible and leaving the doc to excel primarily due to its irrepressible vitality. The Portuguese-language voiceover and spotty subtitling would need revision for wider release, along with re-evaluation of the editorial approach.

Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival (Above and Beyond) 
Production company: Primitivo
Director: Roberto Studart
Director of photography: Michel Gomes
Editor: Roberto Studart

Not rated, 75 minutes