Year: 2021
Duration: 1h 16m
Director: Minna Dufton
Starring: Joana Andrade, Johanna Nordblad

By Caz Armstrong

Have you ever stared your fears in the face and been bold enough to overcome them? This inspirational documentary by Finnish director Minna Dufton is a deeply personal profile of Portugal’s first female big wave surfer which will not only leave you in awe but stir up your soul.

Joana Andrade enjoyed all sports as a child but particularly took to surfing. As this sport had a bad reputation and didn’t welcome girls at the time, she had to skip school to go surfing. To her mother’s continued concern she got better and better and is now one of the world’s top big wave surfers.

At just 5’1” (156cm) she triumphs over 80 foot waves with exceptional skill and bravery. But there’s another story here which is even more powerful. Facing fears is not just about being headstrong or wanting to be the best. For Joana, this is about overcoming personal trauma.

As a survivor of childhood abuse, the enormous waves represent more than physical danger. They are a way of overcoming an obstacle and reclaiming control which was taken from her. Dufton treats this very personal account with a sensitivity and skill that makes it very identifiable. She emphasises the feelings that come with reclaiming control, and what it’s like to work incredibly hard and finally achieve a goal.

By walking us through the emotions involved, Dufton helps the audience to better understand just why Joana’s achievements are so meaningful. This allows us to consider things in our own lives which we have overcome or identify things we could become more at peace with. For some that might involve extreme sports but for others it might be as simple as leaving the house with a little more confidence.

The film also introduces us to Johanna Norblad, a world record free diver who knows all about overcoming obstacles. Together the two women form a deep bond. In this safe space they help each other to learn new skills and exchange encouragement.

We’re often told that women are inherently bitchy and like to tear each other down which simply is not true. The support these two women show each other is a fine example of the bond women can have especially when men are not present, and the power of combined strength against adversity.

Older women from the village of Nazaré, where the biggest waves in the world are found, are also affected by Joana’s achievements. She shows that women can be overcome anything and spreads a feeling of empowerment wherever she goes.

The cinematography captures the enormity of the waves and the sheer force they contain with stunning effect. But it also shows how vulnerable Joana is on a personal level. The two seem at odds which only goes to emphasise the scale of Joana’s achievements.

In this documentary, Dufton has created an affecting portrait of a remarkable and inspirational woman. We see the power of naming our fears and overcoming them. We’re shown that it is possible to reclaim control over your life when you feel it has been lost, and we see the infectious strength that women can pass to each other.

The subject matter is handled with an astute sensitivity, focusing on being a survivor not a victim. Visually and emotionally very powerful, BIG vs SMALL tells us that no matter how small we are we can all achieve big things.


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