Film ​Review: BIG vs SMALL

Words by: Amy Moores

Written and directed by Minna Dufton, this documentary film spans the experience of Joana Andrade, a Portuguese Nazaré surfer. 

Though it does certainly capture Joana at intense wave heights, BIG vs SMALL is no ordinary extreme sports film. This film largely discusses Joana’s fear of drowning, paired with why one would attempt to surf the 100m strong waves that Nazaré is renowned for. This, paired with the striking image of Joana being dropped by her jet ski crew, Sergio Cosme, at the top formation of one of these burgeoning waves, makes for 76 minutes of powerful viewing.

Paddling out here is impossible and everyone that surfs here needs a spotter for protection. A 40m wave will push a surfer 20m under, impossible to swim up from when you don’t know which way is up. To combat this, BIG vs SMALL examines the liberation from trauma that extreme sports provide for its participants through facing fear head-on.

To fight this fear, Minna pairs Joana with Finnish free diver Johanna Nordblad. Currently holding the World Record in freediving under ice for 103m in only her swimming costume, Johanna jokes when teaching our surfer to free dive under the ice that she would break more records if she wasn’t so scared.

Post-filming, she beat the Men’s World Record in March 2021. In her physical breath-hold lessons, visits under the ice, and deep discussions, our girls share in mental techniques to control and let go of fear. Diving here is methodically planned, with Johanna methodically leading the film team in the execution of these lessons.

The two women standing in the freezing water, dunking their faces, set an informal glimpse into the calm let allows them to reach the extremes they do. Throughout, emphasis is placed on Joana’s battle to surf these heights as not being on the wave, but rather an internal one of the mind, with her motto as to “feel the fear, but don’t let it stop you”. 

Relationships play a large part in the journey throughout the film, placing importance on chosen communities and the experience of the individual. Joana’s past and its roots in her fears are considered without being sensationalized, greatly benefitting both the viewer and Andrade.

From the sound of Johanna cutting a raw swimming pool out of a Heinola frozen lake to the falling crash of monstrous waves, there’s a distinct sensory sensation throughout the feature that is almost primitive — you know that what these women are doing is extreme by the sensation in your gut.

Undoubtedly, the strongest thread in the film is that of female friendships. A sweet scene shows Joana teaching Johanna to surf, presenting Joana as at home in her domain, having built a robust friendship captured entirely by the film. The gravity of like-minded, strong women coming together in supported discussion is, to me, the biggest takeaway.

Joana is often declared the “female surfer”, “tiny fighter” and is the first and only Portuguese woman to surf these distinctly Portuguese waves. In meeting each other, it seems as though these champion athletes found kin, distinctive in severe sports that are often dismissed as not a female environment. 

At a Q&A screening with Minna at Plymouth Arts Centre, I was struck by the responsibility she felt to carry this film to the best of her ability. This is a film written, directed, featured, and starred in by women, but don’t dare pigeonhole it into any category.

These women surf destructive waves, free dive under the Finnish lake ice, and make impactful films with cause. Pushing their bodies and minds to the absolute limit, these women are utterly fearless in their quests to conquer their fears. 

This film stays with you and is an excellent companion. The team invites you into their project like a family friend asking you over for dinner, to be comforted, cared for, and sent out into the world having warmed your belly and felt the feelings you needed to feel.

You can follow the BIG vs SMALL team and their journey @bigvssmallfilm. It’s also Nazaré surf season — if you’re a fan of high-altitude surf, I’d highly recommend watching Joana’s exploits at @joana_andrade_surf

BIG vs SMALL is touring now. Check out the trailer and find tickets to see the film for upcoming dates near you here