An underdog team takes the field. A has-been suits up one final time for a last-gasp grab at glory. A never-was gets his or her shot to prove they have what it takes. Sports movies are never just sports movies - they’re tales of the human spirit triumphing over adversity. Sometimes they smell like team spirit. Sometimes they inspire with examples of exceptional individualism. And other times, they prove that a well-timed explosion by a deranged groundskeeper trying to kill a gopher will help you go home a winner. But good ones always make you want to stand up and do the wave in your local cinema.
Founded in 1951, the Dusi Canoe Marathon is a marathon canoe race held over three days between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, South Africa. It is run along the Msunduzi and Mgeni Rivers over a total distance of 120 kilometres. The race is unique in that it includes numerous portages where the paddlers carry their craft over hills, either to cut out unrunnable rapids and cataracts, or to eliminate long loops in the river. Most of these portages are through thick bush on steep and undulating terrain, and several of them are around four kilometres in length. It’s tough stuff. The race attracts between 1,600 and 2,000 paddlers each year, making it the biggest canoeing event on the African continent.
After being sprung while digging up copper wiring and narrowly evading the law, a young man, Duma (Lemogang Tsipa, ‘The Dark Tower’), is forced back into the world of canoeing to keep him on the straight and narrow. At the same time, the long-time partner of Steve (Grant Swanby, ‘Invictus’) decides to paddle with someone else, leaving him stuck without a partner to complete his 15th Dusi and possibly win his 10th gold medal. After some convincing, he agrees to give Duma, or "Helicopter" (an old nickname given to him because of his speed in the water), a shot.
Of course, good sports movies often play up the personal side, whether it's Billy Beane's family in ‘Moneyball’ or the personal travails of Jake LaMotta in ‘Raging Bull’ - so there are a few things Duma and Steve must overcome. Duma is struggling with his no-good father and shady best friend while trying to break out of his life of crime and poverty. On the fancier side of town, the financially comfortable Steve is dealing with the death of his child and a marriage on the verge of collapse. In true odd couple fashion, these two men from entirely different backgrounds must learn to function as a team.
The ugliness of the huge electrical pylons crisscrossing the area, piles of burning rubbish, dusty patches of ground serving as playing fields, and overflowing sewage all portray Duma’s situation which is only a stone’s throw from the mansions in the pristine leafy Northern suburbs.
Inspired by the true story of Siseko Ntondini and Piers Cruickshanks, who together won gold in the 2014 Dusi, director Craig Freimond’s ‘Beyond the River’ is shot beautifully and highlights some of South Africa’s most gorgeous views as the men paddle down treacherous rapids, through rural valleys and spectacular gorges. The ugliness of the huge electrical pylons crisscrossing the area, piles of burning rubbish, dusty patches of ground serving as playing fields, and overflowing sewage all portray Duma’s situation which is only a stone’s throw from the mansions in the pristine leafy Northern suburbs.
‘Beyond the River’ doesn’t really cover any new territory as an inspirational sports film, but it doesn’t need to. Not only is it the best film about canoeing since ‘Deliverance’ and ‘The River Wild’, it’s a uniquely South African story that will leave you with a few feel-good vibes.