The river rages through rugged terrain, past hills and valleys that are beautiful beyond any singing. It gathers its strength in swirls and eddies, in meandering stretches that offer moments of quiet reflection, and then it surges ahead and crashes against the rocks in the twisting fury of the rapids.
The river is the Msunduzi, the river of the Dusi, the canoe marathon that covers 125km over three days from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.
But in Beyond the River, directed by Craig Freimond and now on circuit, the river stands for something bigger than the race.
It is a symbol of the great divide, the barrier of history that keeps us apart, at the same time as it beckons and dares us to test its waters. On the surface, Beyond the River is the story of two troubled and restless men, Steve (white, lives in a big house in the suburbs), and Duma (black, lives in a shack in Soweto), whose lives are drawn to a confluence – a lovely word, meaning the point at which two rivers cross and merge – when they commit their souls to the crucible of the Dusi.
Right from the title, you get where this is going. It’s a parable. An echo of the old gospel song, in which the promise of salvation lies on the other side of the cleansing waters:
“There’s a land beyond the river,
That we call the sweet forever
And we only reach that shore by faith’s decree
One by one we’ll gain the portals,
There to dwell with the immortals
When they ring the golden bells for you and me”
Here the immortals are those who hold gold in their hands at the end of the grueling Dusi, and as we see from the footage, sublimely shot, brilliantly edited, splashed with water, light, and adrenaline, it takes more than faith to reach that distant shore.
Every epic sporting contest involves a degree of self-flagellation and obsession, and for our heroes in this ordeal, the zeal to win is compounded by a driving inner turmoil. Steve, played with sinewy intensity by Grant Swanby, submits himself to the torture of the Dusi as a form of penance for his part in a past tragedy that is tearing his marriage apart.
So driven is he by his demons, that when he is spat out in the rapids, and his canoe fractures like a bone on the rocks, he picks up the pieces and shoulders his burden all the way to the finish, rather than giving up.
Duma, on the other hand, played with deep, moody grace by Lemogang Tsipa, is a man running in limbo, treading water, drawn to petty crime, with only the vaguest ambition stirring him from his stupor: “I want to be a somebody.” What real chance does he have? As his closest friend, Zama, tells him, gesturing at the sprawl on the wrong side of the freeway: “You’re going to die here.”
It is a line of startling, gut-punching nihilism, delivered by a man who literally steals power for a living, digging up cables like snakes from the dirt, and dreaming only of snipping the big one – “the grootman” – from the top of the tall pylon that casts its shadow over his home.
For Duma, the Dusi represents a way out, an escape from the prophecy, even if it leads him along the way to confrontation, violence, and the toxins of rage and racism that threaten to poison his dream. Beyond the River is unapologetically rainbow-hued as it pulses towards its resolution; there is even a pot of gold waiting at the end of it.
But for me, the lingering power of this movie lies in its darker undercurrents, in the sense that the river – the great divide – can be challenged but not conquered, bridged but not overcome, and that the only way to journey beyond it, to the shore of the sweet forever, is to find a way to travel and navigate its treacherous waters together.
Gus Silber is an award-winning South African journalist, author, scriptwriter, and speechwriter.