Bra Boys

I spent Sunday afternoon at Santa Monica beach (something I do frequently on Sunday afternoons), and let me just say: this is one of the most unique and complicated places you can encounter. The twin beach towns of Santa Monica and Venice (about 15 miles west of downtown Los Angeles) make up a unique beach community that stands out among a coastline of “stand out” beach towns. Something about the combination of people (tourists, hippie locals, every ethnicity imaginable, celebrities, vagrants), material environment (art deco architecture, open air promenades, seagulls, cheesy tourist shops), and history (Route 66, the pier, the legendary surf/skateboard communities of the 60s/70s) make this a place with (seemingly) more character than a lot of places. But in the end, aren’t all places equally complicated and unique? What defines a “unique” location? Is a Kansas farmtown any less complex and character-filled than Paris or Shanghai? I was wondering these things as I was at the beach.

Fittingly, I decided to catch a movie at the beachfront arts theater—a documentary called Bra Boys. I say fittingly, because this is a documentary that addresses the question of place very directly and engagingly. In this film (which I highly recommend), the ostensible subject is a group of ragtag Australian hoodlums/surfer dudes nicknamed “Bra Boys.” They are a multi-ethnic gang (or “tribe,” as Australian surfer gangs are often labeled) made up of troubled teens/twentysomethings, thick-necked rugby players, and a few professional surfers (Koby Abberton, most notably). They are joined by a love of surfing, fraternity spirit (they all have “Bra Boys” tattoos), and the fact that they all live and surf the beach waves of Sydney suburb Maroubra. And in the end, this film is not so much about its characters or even the sport of surfing (though it is about this), but rather it is about Maroubra—a place quite unlike any other.

Narrator Russell Crowe makes this clear from the get go, as the film begins with an extended narrative montage of the history of Maroubra—from the colonial days (New South Wales was created, as we know, to be a massive prison for exiles of the Empire) to the relatively recent (1990s-onward) problems of gang violence. From there the film expands into a full-fledged, beautifully-rendered portrait of a very rough, very tight-knit community. It’s also a very personal portrait, as the film is directed by a Bra Boy and Maroubra native, Sunny Abberton (who, along with his brothers Jai and Koby, are the film’s chief character subjects).

Maroubra has had a difficult history, with a lot going against it from very early on. The town is flanked on its three non-ocean sides by a massive prison (Long Bay Jail), the biggest sewage plant in the southern hemisphere, and a rifle range. It’s also a hotbed for low-income public housing, drugs, broken families, and violence (stabbings, shootings, beatings) of all kinds. Out of this overlooked neighborhood (and others like it along the suburban Sydney coast) arose territorial surfer tribes/gangs—more violent, testosterone-filled versions of Santa Monica’s legendary “Z Boys”—who fight each other and defend their communities with vicious tenacity.

Bra Boys is fascinating in its exposure of a strident localism that is little-seen in our increasingly “flat,” globalized world. Maroubra is a place well-defined by its people and history, bound by the driving pastime of surfing on its expansive beaches. Indeed, without surfing, this roughshod neighborhood might collapse in on itself—its residents bound to cycles of poverty, drugs, and incarceration. Instead, it is a place that—through surfing and community—motivates its underprivileged youngsters to rise above their circumstances (almost all of the Bra boys are fatherless, for example) and make something of themselves. I suppose it is an intrinsic logic of any place to find productive outlets wherein the circumstantial disadvantages of its citizens can be overcome, but Bra Boys makes the argument that Maroubra does it better than most.

I’m not sure the film works as an argument for the virtues of Maroubra as a socializing force, but it definitely works as a compelling snapshot of a specific place and culture. There’s something powerful about the singularity of Maroubra’s character—fueled by a common love (surfing) and common enemy (its own fierce localism). Places, I think, are stronger when they have a shared, clear identity, when disparate forces and the dangers of diversity don’t undermine but rather enhance a collective goal or telos. I’m not sure how many Maroubras there are left on earth—or even if we need them anymore. But it’s nice to see one so alive and functional, even if the observance seems somewhat elegiac.

5 responses to “Bra Boys

  1. I saw this movie last weekend too, also in Santa Monica (is it playing anywhere else?). I like your take on it. Maroubra seems like a totally unique place, at least from an American perspective. I love documentaries like this that give a flavor for some culture or place I would never know about in any other way.

  2. Hi I lived in Maroubra for over a decade till about 3 years ago. The romanticisation of the Bra boys is a mistake. As teenagers they are able to lord it over the peaceful people in the neighbourhood, committing petty crimes from theft, vandalising and harrassment under an umbrella of protection from the gang. Consequently they don’t learn responsibility for their actions, rather they become addicted to the ego fodder that comes from collectivised bullying. Though there are some good men amongst them, when I lived there I didn’t see many men who were particularly prepossessing as individuals . More often I saw little men who needed the gang to feel important. This is especially true for the teenagers and boys in their early twenties, its better if teach our teenagers to grow out of bullying rather than into it.
    To live in Maroubra as a non violent person means having your car vandalised or house windows smashed if you object to them calling you a ‘dog’ simply because you refused to give them a piece of the pizza you were carrying home. It means not being able to have a party without being ‘crashed’ by bra boys who then assault your non violent friends and steal dvd’s from your room and packs of beer from the fridge before insulting everyone as they swagger out the door. It means being spat on and laughed at by teenagers as you walk down the street on the basis that there is one of you and ten of them. (all this with no provocation).
    In the movie they try to say they formed to protect the local community, in reality they care only about one thing, themselves. They’re a disparate group and have quite a lot of conflict amongst themselves too, the days of the ‘hard life’ alluded to in the movie… well if they ever existed they are a thing of the past. They need to travel overseas to poor countries to see what a truly hard life is. In Australia no white boy starves or go without shelter if they don’t want to. As a non violent community minded person there is nothing romantic about the bra boys, its an umbrella group for selfish mean behaviour that impacts negatively on all around them. Sorry but thats the on the street reality.

  3. Well said Jon Jasper, these killers, drug dealers and thugs have the Liberal elites hypnotized with their “charm” and anti establishment shenanigans.

    This from Brendan Shanahan puts it well.

    I really, really hate the Bra Boys
    By Brendan Shanahan From: Herald Sun December 07, 2007 12:00AM

    OH, those loveable Bra Boys are at it again – stealing apples from old Mrs McGillicutty’s orchard, smashing windows with their slingshots and arranging for 6kg of cocaine to be imported to Sydney on a flight from LA. Well, allegedly.

    To tell you the truth, if some of the Bra Boys are importing cocaine I would consider it one of their lesser sins.

    After all, advertising executives need something to fill the void and their crumbling septums are of far less concern to me than my right to go to the beach and not feel I’m going to be killed.

    I really, really hate the Bra Boys. I hate them for all the usual reasons: because they’re violent and intimidating and have ruined many days for many people at Maroubra, an otherwise friendly and democratic place, the last beach in the Eastern Suburbs where it’s OK to have back hair.

    I don’t, however, hate the Bra Boys merely because they are thugs. I hate them because they don’t even have the decency to be honest about their thuggishness – they’re self-righteous, moralistic thugs, full of their own importance and blind to their hypocrisies.

    They’re like a heritage preservation society, except the bitchy old ladies all have tattoos and drug problems.

    The Bra Boys are fond of portraying themselves as misunderstood and much maligned.

    In reality they are not nearly maligned enough and are “misunderstood” only insofar as they seem to be regarded by many as lovable ruffians who are forced to beat up people merely because some of them grew up in public housing.

    You can be a tough guy or a big whiney baby, but trying to be both is really kinda lame.

    If further proof were needed that this sentimental nonsense has worked, that it has granted the Bra Boys a privileged position in the public consciousness, then ask yourself whether Russell Crowe would have ever agreed to narrate and publicise a documentary about Lebanese gangs in western Sydney.

    Could you imagine the outcry if Maximus was seen posing for pictures with a bunch of Habibs and Hassans? For some reason it doesn’t seem so cool when the crims don’t surf.

    The Bra Boys are part of long Australian tradition of romanticising thuggery, from Ned Kelly to Chopper Read and the Hell’s Angels (an organisation who have apparently realised that giving away a few toys every year allows you to get away with murder, literally).

    By exploiting dishonest redemption narratives and sentimental notions of “the battler” they have given themselves a bogus semi-legitimacy in which stand-over tactics are portrayed as local pride and violence dismissed as merely Bra Boys being Bra Boys.

    Read more:

  4. What i have read contradicts everything the documentary is about. The bra boys are a gang, even though they say they are not. I think John has put it well in his opinion. Those criminals deserve to be put away and punished for their actions

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