Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Updated: April 9, 3:49 PM ET
MY BROTHERS' KEEPER
By Alyssa Roenigk
No one is sure what to make of the two men walking to the stage. For the past 90 minutes, the standing-room-only audience of 300 people has watched a documentary about their lives. The potent film chronicles the pair's involvement in street fights, beach brawls and a murder trial—and shows both surfing some of the heaviest waves in the world. The crowd at the Off Broadway Theater here in Salt Lake City has just watched these men, founders of the Australian surf gang now known as the Bra Boys, grow up.
As the lights come up and the credits roll, Brian Wimmer, director of the X-Dance film festival (the action sports offshoot of Sundance), introduces the film's stars, brothers Sunny and Koby Abberton: "The Bra Boys will now take your questions."
For a moment, there are none. Eyes dart from ceiling to floor and back to ceiling. A man in the third row wipes his eyes and is surprised to find they are wet. Finally, a hand rises. A woman near the back wants to know how life has changed since the movie's release. Her voice betrays uncertainty about these men, especially 28-year-old Koby. Although younger, he's the bigger of the two—taller, darker, with unruly hair and a swirling, multicolored tattoo that creeps up the left side of his neck. And he will not stand still, partly because he is 200 pounds of energy and partly because he's been drinking at the bar the past three hours.
Sunny, the film's 34-year-old writer, director and producer, steps forward, then pauses to let the question hang. If he's learned anything while creating his first film, it's the art of the dramatic. His voice is measured, his Australian accent thick, as he speaks of opportunities that have resulted from his newfound fame. Although the film made its U.S. debut at the festival (it hits U.S. theaters April 11), Bra Boys is already the highest-grossing non-IMAX documentary in Australian history. In the year since the movie's Aussie release, the Abbertons have become household names in Sydney and the Bra Boys have transformed into a cult phenomenon. But here in Salt Lake, the
brothers are met with skepticism.
"The kids," Sunny says, "are why we made this film." He is not what she expected.
"Same question," the woman says as Sunny passes the microphone to his brother.
Koby pauses, then unleashes an eyes-first smile that could disarm a pipe bomb.
"Well," he says, cocking his head to the side and shooting that smile straight into the woman's eyes. "I'm having a lot more sex."
Koby was 5 years old when he, Sunny and older brother Jai moved in with their grandparents. Ma and Pa, as the boys called Mavis and Jim Abberton, had found their daughter, Lyn, living with her sons in a nudist colony up the coast from their home in Maroubra, a poor beach town east of Sydney. The boys' hair was tangled in hippie beads and they were covered in mud. "They grabbed us right out of there," Sunny says.TONY HINES, A FORMER BRA BOY, WAS FOUND DEAD AT THE BASE OF A CLIFF, JAI WAS SUSPECTED OF THE KILLING. KOBY LIED AND SAID HE HADN'T SEEN HIS BROTHER.
The brothers spent much of the next few years living in Ma's garage (Pa died soon after the boys moved in) as Lyn, a single parent, struggled to kick her heroin habit. "Every six months, Mum would clean up, come get us, then get messed up again," says Sunny. Then it was back to Ma's garage, which became a pre- and postsurf meeting spot for a constant swirl of Maroubra groms. It was in that garage that the Bra Boys were formed.
At first, 10 or 20 kids piled in, but the group grew quickly. Today the Bra Boys number more than 400, ranging in age from 16 to 50. They include lawyers, chiropractors, an MMA fighter (Ian "Goshu Hurricane" Schaffa), an Olympic boxing hopeful (Kurt Bahram), a National Rugby League star (Reni Maitua), a film director (Macario De Souza) and three renowned big-wave surfers (Koby, Mark Mathews and Richie Vaculik).
Members consider themselves more brothers than buddies, linked by their backgrounds, common struggles and passion for surfing. They dubbed early incarnations Ma's Madness and Ma's Hell Team, but Bra Boys is the name that stuck. Short for Maroubra, the name screamed local pride. During this time, in 1994, American gang culture, along with Biggie's first album, Ready to Die, was hitting Sydney's shores. The Abbertons borrowed from rap videos to form the group's look, and they adopted a loud, slapping, forearm-on-forearm gripper of a handshake as their members-only greeting.
Bra Boy Jack Kingsley turned the handshake into a graphic; as a rite of passage, each member has the image inked onto his body, alongside the words "Bra Boys" in Old English lettering. But counter to the gang image the Bra Boys give off, new members (who have to have lived in Maroubra for at least 10 years) must be wholly committed to supporting the community. It certainly needs the help. Nearly a quarter of Maroubra's 26,723 people live below the poverty line, and the county jail overlooking the surf houses many Bra Boys and their family members, among them the father of Dakota, Koby and Sunny's youngest brother. The tattoo represents the Abbertons' belief that they can give hope to local kids. "It means you're part of something bigger than yourself," says Koby, one of the first to get the tat, at 14. "It means you'll drop everything to be there for your friends."
The brand carries another expectation: Bra Boys are serious surfers. Experience on the treacherous reef breaks off of Maroubra Beach teaches locals to handle waves as well as any surfers in the world. Maroubra kids also grow up knowing that surfing could be a way out. Koby was just 9 when 15-year-old Sunny left to compete on the World Championship Tour. "Those were the hardest times of our lives," Koby says. He once caught his mom and her boyfriend shooting up and took a beating from the guy as a result. Often there was no money for food for the family, which by this time included little brother Dakota (now 16). While Koby resorted to selling weed to kids on the beach, he saw what surfing was doing for his big brother. And he wanted in. "I saw Sunny away from it all and doing something he loves," Koby says. "Surfing became my mission."
Away from Maroubra, Sunny was experiencing a new view of life. "I didn't realize the rest of the world was any different," Sunny says. "I thought all families went through the struggles we did." Sunny was shocked when an older surfer on the Tour reacted angrily after catching him stealing from a convenience store. "That's how we ate," Sunny says. "It was on Tour that I learned stealing was not okay. Drugs were not okay. Crime was not okay. Surfing gave me that." And he passed the message to Koby and Jai whenever he returned home.
Sunny surfed on the WCT for six years, driven by passion born of anger, desperation and hunger. In 1991, in the result he's most proud of, Sunny beat future hotshot Kelly Slater in the Miyazaki Pro in Japan. Eventually, his passion turned to filmmaking. He left the Tour in 1995, and by 2002, Sunny was poring over reference books, inter-viewing local families and researching Maroubra Beach history. He was going to tell its story.
Koby joined the Tour in 1996 and quickly became known as much for his hard partying as for his surfing prowess. He also still tangled with Sydney police, started fights in the surf and regularly blew off sponsor requirements. He did what he wanted, when he wanted, and had a hell of a good time along the way.FACING PRISON TIME, KOBY BEGAN SURFING THE WORLD'S BIGGEST WAVES. "I FIGURED IF I'M GOING TO JAIL, THIS WAS THE TIME TO DO IT."
That hard-charging image was exactly what Oakley wanted when the company signed Koby to a five-year, $1 million deal in 2001. His popularity with the celebrity set—Koby has been linked to fellow Bondi Blonde beer spokesperson Paris Hilton and now dates Aussie model/actress Tahyna Tozzi—made him frequent fodder for the local tabloids. His gritty good looks endeared him to surf fans looking for an antithesis to pretty boy Slater.
But 2003 brought a test of loyalty for Koby and his sponsors. Koby was home during a break from the Tour when Maroubra police stopped by. They were looking for Jai. The naked body of Tony Hines, a former Bra Boy, had been found at the base of a cliff. He'd been shot and tossed over the edge. Hines was a convicted rapist and alleged drug dealer known for brutally beating anyone who crossed him. Jai was suspected of his murder. Koby lied to police, claiming he hadn't seen Jai that day.
After the cops left, Koby thought about the words tattooed across his chest: "My Brothers Keeper." As a teen, he'd gotten the ink after reading a Bible verse that resonated with him, Genesis 4:9:
Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"
He said, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?"
"Those words were really tested that night," Koby says.
Jai later admitted to the killing, and spent nearly two years in jail awaiting trial. According to Jai's testimony, Hines believed Jai had slept with his girlfriend, and in retaliation had threatened to first rape Jai's girlfriend then kill both of them. The prosecution alleged Jai shot Hines execution style to stop his threats. But according to Jai, Hines had carjacked the couple. As the two men wrestled for the gun, it went off, shooting Hines in the back of the head. Jai says he panicked. Fearful no one would believe his story, he and his girlfriend dumped the body over the cliff. In May 2005, Jai was acquitted on grounds of self-defense.
For his part, Koby was found guilty of lying to police and faced up to 14 years in prison. But in March 2006, he was given a nine-month suspended sentence. Koby says the ordeal cost him $200,000 in legal fees, and Oakley chose not to renew his contract when it expired that fall. Soon, Koby was bankrupt, and he reportedly owed hundreds of thousands in unpaid taxes. He also lost the three houses he owned in Maroubra.
The legal ordeal changed Koby's surf focus and gave him new direction. Too distracted by the trial to focus on contests, Koby poured his energy into surfing big waves. In the months leading up to his sentencing, he towed into the largest swell ever recorded at Fiji's Cloudbreak and surfed 40-footers at Hawaii's Jaws. "I never had a chance to surf big waves on Tour," Koby says. "I figured if I was going to jail for a long time, this was the time to do it." Today, his legal issues behind him, Koby is driven to become the greatest big-wave surfer in the game, and his fearlessness is being rewarded by such sponsors as Analog clothing and Globe shoes. "It really opened something in me," he says. "Even though it was a negative time, it was a positive for me."
Throughout all the turmoil, Sunny's cameras rolled. As a director, the murder was an unexpected gift. As a brother, it was an unwanted hell. "I remember driving to court thinking I was going away to jail and he had a camera in my face," Koby says. "I was like, Give it a break, Sunny. But I respected that he wanted to make a movie."
Sunny's cameras rolled as Koby told Ma he was a free man. And they rolled as the brothers carried her casket to its final resting place a few months later. The four years of footage became Bra Boys, a project that has exceeded even Sunny's wildest expectations. It won best documentary at X-Dance and beat Michael Moore's Sicko for best doc at Sydney's Movie EXTRA Filmink Awards in March. Russell Crowe narrated, free of charge.
Crowe had heard about Koby through a Bra Boy who plays on the South Sydney rugby team the actor owns. Taken with Koby's story, he called and asked for a meeting. Koby hung up on him. Crowe e-mailed. Koby told him to f— off. "I thought it was a friend playing a joke," says Koby. Finally, the two connected and Crowe signed on.
"Russell believes sport and belief in self can take you above adversity," says Bra Boys co-producer Michael Lawrence. "He saw in Koby's big-wave surfing the same thing he saw in a rugby team from one of the poorest suburbs in Sydney." Crowe then took the movie to producer Brian Grazer (American Gangster), who optioned the story for a feature film, set for release in 2009. It will be Crowe's feature directorial debut, and could make Koby a household name in the U.S.
He's already tasting the good life, living rent-free in the Hollywood Hills home of his friend Aussie swimming star Ian Thorpe. He has a relationship again with mom Lyn, who's been clean for five years and is now a nurse. And tonight, in Salt Lake City, Koby's giddy-kid charm has seduced the X-Dance audience, which wants more. Someone asks what it's like to be a star. "We didn't make the movie to become stars," Koby says. "We made it to help kids growing up like us. I am much more happy to be a role model than some sort of star. Becoming well-known won't change the person I am. Ever." You know, aside from all the sex.