It’s not just for canoeing people, it’s for everyone … It’s a true South African story.
Inspired by the true story of Siseko Ntondini and Piers Cruickshanks, who together won gold in the 2014 Dusi, Beyond the River delivers a nail-biting adventure story about the triumph of the human spirit, and is now available on DVD.
The bonus features include a documentary on the real story, as well as an insightful behind the scenes doccie and interview with writer-director Craig Freimond.
Brought to the big screen by Heartlines and Quizzical Pictures, the movie was written by Craig Freimond and Robbie Thorpe, directed by Freimond and produced by Thorpe, Harriet Gavshon and Ronnie Apteker. The beautifully shot film 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.
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 medalist whose marriage is on the verge of collapse. His passion for the sport is fueled 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, not least of which are the completely different worlds they come from. They realise that the dream they both desperately desire requires them to work together, both in the boat and beyond the river.
Starring Grant Swanby (Blood Diamond, Mandela-Long Walk to Freedom and Invictus) as Steve Andrews, and Lemogang Tsipa (When We Were Black, Traffic! and Jab), who makes his debut lead role as Duma Madlala. Other cast members include Israel Sipho Matseke Zulu, formerly Makoe (Yizo Yizo, Tsotsi and Gaz’lam), Emily Child (Shirley Adams and Village Voices), Mary Twala (Beat the Drum and Lucky), Kgosi Mongake (Invictus, The Bang Bang Club and Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom) and Garth Breytenbach (Black Sails and Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom).
Beyond the River’s genesis 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 alerted film makers Robbie Thorpe (producer of Vaya (2016), Tell Me Sweet Something (2015) and Material (2012) and Craig Freimond (writer/director of Material (2012), Jozi (2010) and Gums & Noses (2004) to the story, thinking initially it would make a good documentary, but Freimond and Robbie convinced him that it would be great material for a feature film.
According to Freimond, who wrote the screenplay together with Robbie Thorpe, “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 30 kilometers 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, it’s a sport level, 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,” says Lemogang Tsipa. ”I felt like I was ready for something like this. It’s a really great dramatic story. 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.”
The Director of Photography was Trevor Calverley (Sink, 2016; Leading Lady 2014; Fanie Fourie’s Lobola, 2014; Material 2012).
Says Calverley, “I was very excited about the project. I enjoyed the script. A lot of challenges in the project, and it was interesting to try and solve those and get something that looks realistic on camera. Also, filming in one of the biggest droughts South Africa has had was a major challenge. A lot of the rigs we prepped just had to be abandoned because of the water levels.”
A big part of the challenge for Freimond was that the actors had to learn how to canoe: “Our leads had to be able to canoe, But we were more interested in finding the right actors and training them. We had Olympic canoeing Shaun Rubenstein who was their trainer.”
The two actors were both based in Cape Town and had to train throughout the cold Cape winter.
Said Tsipa: “It was about a four-month learning curve, The first two months we just kept going and falling in, going and falling in. We got to a point where we both doubted ourselves. It was incredibly tough.”
Another major challenge for Freimond was working on water: “Working on water was incredibly technically challenging. How do you film canoeing? Where’s the camera? What’s it on? You’re on a boat, they’re on a boat; you’re unstable, they’re unstable. We developed techniques where we would be on land with a very long lens, hold the front of the boat, they’re going, they’re canoeing, but obviously they’re not moving, but the water is flying, and then we started getting somewhere.”
Piers Cruickshanks and Siseko Ntondini were involved in the making of the film.
Piers was the stunt double for the actor playing himself. Ntondini played as an extra in many of the bigger scenes.
The film made extensive use of drones, as well as using footage from the actual Dusi (filmed by Big Shot Media) which they blended in with footage of the actors.
Nick Costaras was the editor, who managed to make the transitions seamless.
“It’s not just for canoeing people, it’s for everyone” says Grant 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.”
Freimond: “The film is quite different. I can’t think of too many films like it. It’s got a feel-good side to it, but it has also got a lot of depth. People who’ve seen it have responded to the story, the film itself, the actors, the landscapes. People will enjoy this movie.”