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.