Clearly the South African film industry is healthy and productive. Every other Friday, the Movies Out Today post lists a homemade film or two on the schedule. Sadly, most of these efforts are a blip on the radar, so poorly punted that they’re in cinemas one weekend and gone the next. Real-life sports drama Beyond the River had a bit more publicity muscle behind it than most local releases when it paddled into cinemas back in April. It turns out the attention then – and now with home release – is deserved. Beyond the River is technically accomplished and highly watchable.
There’s little question Beyond the River is audience-minded. This isn’t an arthouse movie. It ticks several crowd-pleasing boxes simultaneously: sports drama, inspired by real-life events, “triumph against the odds” tale with disparate heroes crossing racial divides and collaborating to overcome obstacles. You know the Blind Side drill. This said, as a feel-good blockbuster Beyond the River is premium, polished entertainment. It is a very accessible mainstream drama, well-acted and visually striking.
Loosely based on the story of Piers Cruickshanks and Siseko Ntondini, Beyond the River focuses on two very different men who team up to tackle the Dusi Canoe Marathon, one of the most gruelling river races in the world. Of course, the task won’t be easy. To win gold the canoeists will have to function seamlessly as a single unit, and they both have personal demons to conquer first. Duma (Lemogang Tsipa) is a township youth feeling the weight of family responsibility, poverty and hopelessness. Crime is a continual money-making temptation. Meanwhile, Steve (Grant Swanby) is a veteran, gold medal-winning paddler, but is facing the collapse of his marriage due to guilt and grief over a tragedy.
So, yes, in terms of plot, Beyond the River isn’t original. If you’ve ever watched this kind of genre fare, you should know the story beats: the “two steps forward, one step back” structure, alternating flashes of success with inevitable setbacks. The familiarity doesn’t really matter though. For South African audiences, the film has the novelty of being a rare home-grown sports drama. Plus, Beyond the River always feels authentic in its depiction of contemporary South African experience, from township life to white suburbia; from bustling Johannesburg to the quiet vastness of the KZN countryside.
Speaking of authenticity, Beyond the River benefits from its all-round excellent performances. Tsipa has more subtle, silent acting to do in conveying Duma’s frequent frustration, while Swanby gets a particularly moving moment of confession which will probably squeeze tears from the viewer. Both leads shine. At the same time, special mention must go to Israel Sipho Matseke Zulu, for his portrayal of gruff mentor Oupa, who knows how to dish out the tough love that will keep Duma on track.
The only real gripe that can be made about Beyond the River is that it had a lot of sponsorship money injected into the project, and it’s not subtle in conveying that point on-screen. Bright brand logos appear regularly and obtrusively. And one scene, though based on truth, stretches credibility for moviegoers cynical about what treatments would really be available to unemployed township dwellers reliant on public healthcare.
Otherwise, the only other negative about Beyond the River is the regret you’ll feel that you didn’t catch the movie on the big screen. It’s an exceptionally beautiful film, visually lush and dynamic. It should be watched on as large as screen as possible to appreciate the many drone-enabled aerial views, as well as shots of water and silhouetted figures in the golden sunset light. Props to the cinematographer. The film showcases South Africa’s everyday splendour in almost every scene.
Beyond the River is a treat on many levels – emotionally, aesthetically and in terms of presenting a sport you rarely see onscreen. As a bonus, if you are curious about the real-life events that inspired it, the DVD includes a meaty 25-minute documentary, along with a 12-minute Making Of featurette. Even without the special features though, Beyond the River is definitely worth checking out.
Last Updated: August 2, 2017
Its plot may not be original, but Beyond the River scores points for its authentic take on contemporary South Africa, and its top-notch technical polish as a movie experience. A combination of gorgeous, kinetic visuals and heart-filled performances make it a winner.