BY BILLY SUTER
WHAT started out as an idea for a good documentary grew into a film feature which, centred on the three-day Dusi Canoe Marathon in South Africa, reaches local cinemas on Thursday, April 27.
The film, a story about triumph of the spirit, is Beyond the River, inspired by the true story of Siseko Ntondini and Piers Cruickshanks, who together took gold medals in the 2014 Dusi.
In the movie, the two men are called Steve and Duma for a tale that is both an adventure story centred on canoeing and a drama revolving around two men who, to succeed in a common goal, must overcome obstacles that include baggage of the completely different worlds they come from.
Durban-born Grant Swanby, seen in the films Blood Diamond, Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom and Invictus, stars as Steve Andrews. Lemogang Tsipa (seen in When We Were Black, Traffic! and Jab) makes his debut lead role as Duma Madlala.
Duma is a talented young man who feels trapped by his surroundings and finds himself on the wrong side of the law. After a near miss with the cops, he finds an escape in the world of canoeing, an old passion of his.
Steve is a nine-time Dusi gold medallist whose marriage is on the verge of collapse. His passion for the sport is fuelled by his wanting to escape from something in his past that continues to haunt him.
Through a series of unexpected events, the two men find themselves attempting the three-day Dusi Canoe Marathon as a doubles pair.
But there are a few things they must overcome… and they get to realise that the dream they both desperately desire requires them to work together, both in the boat and beyond the river.
Among other cast members in the film, which features original music by former Durban musician Chris Letcher, is Durban’s Ben Voss as well as Israel Sipho Matseke Zulu, Emily Child, Mary Twala, Kgosi Mongake and Garth Breytenbach.
Brought to the big screen by Heartlines and Quizzical Pictures, the film was written by Craig Freimond and Robbie Thorpe, directed by Freimond and produced by Thorpe, Harriet Gavshon and Ronnie Apteker.
Beautifully shot, it showcases some of South Africa’s spectacular KwaZulu-Natal landscapes and has been funded by the National Lotteries Commission, the Department of Trade and Industry, the National Film and Video Foundation and the KwaZulu Natal Film Commission.
According to production notes, the genesis of Beyond the River was a powerpoint presentation that Piers Cruickshanks, academic head of the Johannesburg school Kingsmead, gave at his school assembly.
He had just competed in the 2014 Dusi Canoe Marathon with Siseko Ntondini, overcoming enormous obstacles along the way.
It was a perfect story for the NGO Heartlines which, like Participant Media, the American film production company founded in 2004 by Jeffrey Skoll, is dedicated to entertainment that inspires and compels social change.
Fellow canoeist Brad Fisher had taken the story to film-makers Thorpe – producer of 2016’s Vaya, 2015’s Tell Me Sweet Something and 2012’s Material – and Freimond (writer-director of Material, Jozi and Gums & Noses), thinking initially it would make a good documentary.
However, Freimond and Robbie convinced him that it would be great material for a feature film.
Says Freimond: “The film had a very strange genesis. My producer, Robbie, got a call from these canoeists, basically an older white guy and a younger black guy from very different circumstances, who got together to do the Dusi and had an amazing and unusual experience.
“What was essentially Piers and Siseko’s story needed more external drama, and more character drama, so we took both of those characters and essentially moved them quite far from Piers and Siseko.”
The story behind the Cruickshanks/Ntondini partnership was the creation of the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club by members of the Dabulamanzi Canoe club, based in Emmarentia, a leafy suburb of northern Johannesburg.
In 2013, when going for his 10th gold medal in the Dusi, Cruickshanks had a disastrous race, breaking his canoe, but running the last 30km with his boat to the finish.
Ntondini, then 19, had progressed through the ranks at the Development Club, and had come 11th in the same race, just missing his first gold medal.
The following year’s competition would be a doubles race, and Ntondini asked Cruickshanks if they could do it together.
They started training, but Ntondini developed a stress fracture in his leg which almost ruled them out.
With the intervention of a zero-gravity training machine, Ntondini was able to carry on training, and so they were able to start the race, but from right at the back of the batch.
Over the three-day race they managed to make up 53 places, and come seventh, winning Piers his seventh, and Siseko his first gold medal.
Says Swanby: “Beyond the River is one of those films you need to see on the big screen. It’s a genre movie, on one level, and it’s a sport film, but on another level it’s about people, it’s about togetherness about two men from totally diverse backgrounds working together to achieve an aim.”
“It’s my first time playing the lead in a film. I felt like I was ready for something like this. It’s a really great dramatic story,” says Tsipa.
“I found it very challenging, not only playing those parts emotionally, but physically having to learn another skill, and not only look like a paddler but look like a professional paddler, one that can win gold.”
“It’s not just for canoeing people, it’s for everyone” adds Swanby. “Everyone who goes to see it is going to have a really amazing film experience.”
“It’s a true South African story”, says Lemogang Tsipa. “You’ll see a lot of different sides of South Africa and the country.”