Easy to judge, hard to watch.
The new film En La Tormenta documents the last five years of WQS hopeful Jhonny Guerrero.
Here’s the short version:
Guerrero taught himself to surf on a snapped board in Lima as his dad sat in Peru’s hellish Lurigancho prison, his mom and baby brother without food and broke in Chorrillos, one of Lima’s many dangerous barrios.
Naturally, gang life seemed like a fun option for Jhonny until he was shot through the back in a drive-by.
While not explicitly prohibited in the ‘QS Rule Book, none of it is best practice.
Director Adam Brown originally set out for Peru in 2015 to shoot Projecto Sofía Mulánovich, a talent scouting and surf training academy led by Sophia herself, a former ASP World Tour Champion and current ISA World Games gold medal winner. Most of the kids invited into the Projecto came from the country’s middle and upper classes, equipped with fine quivers and supportive parents.
Jhonny had neither, showing up on the beach alone with an old board and a hole in his wetsuit.
Brown said that he “kept hearing about this kid called Jhonny Guerrero who was from a tough neighborhood. He had supposedly taught himself to surf on a piece of foam and then a broken board he had found on the beach and now he was absolutely ripping. He seemed like a bit of a myth and whenever I said to Sofia’s team that we should get him along to the trials, there was always some hesitatio. There were (unfounded) rumors at the time that Jhonny was robbing people on the beach to survive.”
Still, Sofía took a chance on the quiet kid, seeing both his drive and natural ability to read a wave right.
“Here in Peru mostly all the families that surf know each other and their love for the sports comes from generation to generation,” Sofia told me. “But Jhonny came from the city and nobody really knew about him and his family. He comes from a really unstable social background and I decided to help him because he didn’t have the means to get good equipment and coaching but he was super talented .”
And he was every bit as good as people had described: smooth and fluid, a raw talent that got Sofia and her coaches excited. Jhonny ended up being selected as part of a group of ten talented kids that would be trained by Sofia and her team.
Sofia’s interest in helping Jhonny went beyond teaching him how to get more power off his back foot. She and the others at the Projecto helped him keep distance from the gangs infesting his barrio.
“Jhonny was always in an environment that led him to street life, so we tried to help him by guiding him in the best possible way to put all his energy into his surfing. We moved him to a different house with a really nice family that surfs,” said Sofia.
In the film, we see Jhonny pick up sponsors including Hurley and others who throw him clothes and money, some of which he uses to buy a bed for his little brother and give some to his mom who says him, exhaustedly, “I’m so hungry.”
Happily ever after. Thank you, Hurley.
But the story arc of En La Tormenta isn’t that clean.
Even with the lifeline Sophia hands him, Jhonny goes back to what he knows. He’s anchored to the street. During the Peruvian under 16 finals, Jhonny was the favorite to win, but he never makes it to the sand, leaving Sofia and his support team defeated. When the camera catches his coach trying to shake some sense into him, Jhonny looks numb, indifferent at best.
Soon after, he’d be in the hospital nursing two bullet holes through his body.
It’s easy to judge him here, a raw-talented kid given a golden ticket to learn fromSofía Mulánovich with all the trimmings: boards, swag, cash then tossing it all to go back to the temptations of his barrio.
But environment everything and need has no law.
This is where the film is at its best, leaving us to wrestle with Jhonny’s decisions as we run our own eyes around our cozy, carpeted living rooms.
Fortunately for Jhonny, Sofia and his coaches didn’t let him run around the streets for long and within months of the shooting, we watch an emotional Jhonny back in the water on the ‘QS, nailing down some fine results.
En La Tormenta ends before Hurley dropped its team last year and before COVID-19 shut down Jhonny’s chances of continuing on tour.
“Cut adrift by circumstances,” as Director Adam Brown says.
Both Sofia and Brown are in frequent contact with Jhonny. Neither know if he’ll be able to get to the ‘CT.
Back in Chorrillos, Jhonny is pursuing his interest in Latin rap and has been seen lately in a few surf contests around Lima. Sofia thinks Jhonny has learned through the years that hard work pays off.
“He is a really charismatic young man that can succeed in many areas if he puts his heart and mind into it.”
Watching the movie, we’re left to wonder what’s going to happen to the kid who’s captured on film crying more than smiling, splitting his time between ocean and street.
And while beautifully shot (JJF’s filmer Erik Knutson spent some days behind the lens), En La Tormenta ain’t no promotional video.
In case you want to throw a buck or two to help poor kids from Lima’s barrios learn to surf, you can check out Alto Peru.
It just won Best Film at the 2020 Brooklyn Film Festival and will be available on BBC’s Storyville in January.
Good watching between CT contests.