Details: (M), 85 mins, Australia, English
Synopsis: A documentary on two best friends – Mark Mathews and Richie Vaculik – and their struggles as they chase their dreams of becoming professional sports people.
Bra Boy buddy doco lacks true punch.
Fighting Fear has been pitched in its publicity as a buddy-movie where two top athletes beat their best game and the odds to ultimately triumph due to a combination of true grit and their belief that friendship will conquer all. It’s Rocky, with boards and fists. But actually, I think it’s a love story between two blokes.
The friendship that’s at the core of this picture is the elevated experience for these two twenty-somethings, both from Maroubra, and both part of the much-maligned ‘Bra Boys’ surf gang. Family, professional relationships and women just don’t seem to have the traction of ‘mateship’ for the men here. In a way, it’s a very Australian story. What I mean by that is that it takes place in a surf and beach milieu, a subculture that a lot of people will doubtlessly recognise but not necessarily identify with (like this writer who grew up in another beach suburb where the surf clique there considered the Maroubra lads sworn enemies.) This is a male-centered fraternity; a place of swaggering, casual violence, beeriness, and a mood of hard man jocularity where outward expressions of sentiment are considered ‘soft’.
Fighting Fear is not a film, though, that is necessarily enraptured by the dark side of surf-machismo; there’s a love of surf, danger, and the natural world as well as ‘outrageous behaviour’ (as in getting one’s pants off in public and filming it for the edification of your buddies).
The movie’s heroes are big wave champ surfer Mark Mathews and mixed martial arts competitor Richie ‘Vas’ Vaculik. The movie was directed by a pal of theirs, Macario de Souza, who co-directed Bra Boys, and just like that picture, Fighting Fear suffers from a sort of ‘insider-syndrome’: objective facts, scene-setting and helpful contextualisation of story content, culture and time here have taken a long holiday.
The absence of rigorous documentary technique makes the film weirdly curious. What’s on screen is always pretty interesting in an MTV sports info-tainment kind of way, but it feels thin, and for a movie about a certain lifestyle, it’s oddly coy, even sweet. For instance, both Mathews and Vas (as his mates like to call him) sport a Bra Boys tattoo; what this means is never mentioned or explained. (And nor for that matter is the very bad rap the Bra Boys endure or the public humiliation that the group have suffered over various court matters, like unlawful death and drug dealing.)
De Souza, in other words, assumes that the audience will know who these guys are; where they are from and why leaving behind one part of the lifestyle they build their world on (reckless violence) is so important to them.
Still, it’s the kind of non-fiction film where the facts hardly matter. It’s so personal and so wholesome it’s like a home movie, but one made under the sign of those corny old Hollywood pics about toughs lads from the wrong side of the tracks, who under the guidance of a life-giving spirit escape the worst of their roots.
Described as a docu-drama, Fighting Fear is a talking heads movie, augmented by a few short vignettes aimed to depict the childhood of Vas and Mathews, as well as one or two episodes of expressionistic violence (which look alarmingly like adverts for boutique beer!) Of course, the film abounds with action footage: some great surf stuff (the film’s best moments) and a very suspenseful MMA bout where Vas has to overcome an outsized opponent.
When De Souza told Mathews he wanted to make the film, the surfer suggested it was a stupid idea. Maybe he was projecting shyness or else anticipating that he may not be able to ‘deliver’ on camera. Whatever was really beneath the comment, Mathews and Vas do not turn out to be strong interviews; they seem uncomfortable, evasive, brittle, and unwilling to drop their tough-guy personas. Still, that inability to appear truly vulnerable on camera is very revealing and it’s the best part of the film since it’s so ironic – these guys can risk their necks, but fighting the fear that comes with opening up their inner lives is a much bigger risk.
De Souza has claimed in print that the film, he hopes, will encourage the ‘hard men’ of surf to be more open with their emotions. That seems a modest project; for Mathews and Vaculik, declaring their affection for each others seems quite easy, since they grew up in a surf cult founded on sticking up for “your brother”. This film is a celebration of that kind of love. It’s possible to understand what that means for these blokes, but the film has no real intimacy – which makes us all outsiders – and no apparent goal beyond cheering these guys on.
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