The 36th Durban International Film Festival in South Africa has wrapped its annual showcase of international film, with this year's menu providing distinctly more African fare under the new directorship of Pedro Pimenta.
South African documentary The Shore Break is Ryley Grunenwald's second feature, after Dawn Of A New Day, and firmly establishes her place among the cadre of fantastic female documentarians making their mark in the region (e.g. Meg Rickards' 1994: The Bloody Miracle; Tarryn Lee Crossman's Fatherland; Annalet Steenkamp's I, Afrikaner).
At the heart of The Shore Break is a very difficult question: how to develop one of the most rural and remote areas of South Africa, Amadiba in Pondoland - largely bereft of roads, schools, health services and jobs - without sacrificing either the environmental integrity of this breathtakingly beautiful region, or the traditional way of life that the Pondo people have tended for centuries.
Grunenwald takes this treacherously academic question and explores its complexity in viscerally relatable terms by revealing layers of personal, political, legal, cultural and economic intrigue. In so doing she manages to weave a gripping tale from confounding threads with a clarity and sensitivity that left me reeling from my own comprehension.
Pondoland is a pristine pastoral wilderness of rolling hills and rivers that tumble into the Indian Ocean. It is affectionately called the Wild Coast, and much of it remains a challenge to reach to this day. The community at the heart of this film is without electricity or plumbing, with the nearest medical attention many hours, even days, of walking away. Consequently, the government is under pressure to provide services, and is naturally eager to find partners in this endeavor.
Enter the South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL), who want to lay a major freeway through the area, and an Australian mining company that wants access to the rich titanium deposits found in the coastal dunes of Pondoland. Both proposals come with grand promises of jobs and development, and indeed seem tied together since a mine is not feasible without access to and fro. However, history has shown that both will also bring a plague of social ills, environmental degradation, and in all likelihood the end of a treasured way of life for the Pondo.
Nonhle Mbuthuma is the community heroine who has helped resist mining and toll road forays for almost a decade, and believes regional eco-tourism is a viable, and more sustainable alternative. It's hard not to feel her point; the landscape and lives of the Pondo shine under Grunenwald's lens, and the original songs contributed by Pondo musician Ntombe Thongo bring both the people and place to life. Beautiful sand art by South African animator Justine Puren-Calverley punctuate the story, and serve to repeatedly ground it in the beaches and earth that underpin the conflict between mining and preservation.
Leading the mining application's passage through tribal community channels is an entrepreneur and self-proclaimed community voice, Zamile "Madiba" Qunye. Qunye appears by turns achingly sincere in his desire to bring opportunity to his people, and douche-chillingly manipulative as he scurrilously courts private investment and unscrupulous government officials. He is also Mbuthuma's cousin, and as we watch their conflict play out on familial terms it becomes a striking microcosm for the larger problem. Around his cousin, Qunye pretends that there simply is no conflict; as though it is not a personal matter with profound personal consequences. This is how we also see government officials acting and communicating; hell-bent on pushing their agenda through no matter the personal feelings of the affected communities.
Orbiting this family conflict are the governmental and tribal leadership, vying in concert for control of the outcome, in favor of mining: there is a King deposed for resisting mining, and his pro-mining replacement, imposed by the ANC government; the tribal Chief drives his new 4x4, courtesy of the mining company; the provincial Premiere is condescendingly offended by the very existence of local resistance; and a government lawyer successfully argues in court that the deposed royalty were never legitimate because the government didn't recognize royal authority until it formally introduced the new royal representative of their own selection. The South African government's reputation for corruption and cronyism does not shine a kind light on these characters' actions.
Throw into the mix suspicious illnesses, even deaths, forged signatures and petitions, and the Constitutional Court's withering judgement against the government when reinstating the traditional Royal Family, and you have all the makings for riveting documentary story-telling. That the narrative remains so clear while wending its way through a quagmire of competing perspectives, never failing to give each its due and sincerely encouraging audiences to judge for themselves, is Grunenwald's greatest gift to the story.
The Shore Break won the Audience Choice Award earlier this year at Encounters, Africa's premier documentary film festival, and it's easy to see why. Subtle, layered, and important, this documentary is as insightful as it affecting, and though it offers little in the way of easy answers it does provide a soberingly nuanced picture of the challenges facing development in South Africa's complex society.
It is worth mentioning that the film is co-produced by Odette Geldenhuys, a public interest lawyer and documentary film-maker in her own right. I sense the film has benefited greatly from her legal mind, no doubt well-trained in the due consideration of competing arguments. However, objective as the film is in practice, in principle it wears its heart on its sleeve. The Shore Break's very existence and its subject matter are testament to Grunenwald's affection for the region, with which she has a lifelong relationship, and her desire to give this story a voice. Combined with her adoring cinematography, there is no question where Grunenwald's heart lies, and indeed, a presentation of the facts will leave most hearts in favor of the community. This is all the more reason to give Grunenwald credit for being so honest with the merits of the competing view.
Though the story in real life is not yet over, the film ends at the crux of the matter: should the government impose development on the terms it deems best for the region, or should the Pondo people have final say in the development of resources on their lands. Can a viable alternative development strategy be devised? Mbuthuma believes that regional eco-tourism is a better solution than localized mining, but there isn't much money in that for those higher up the food chain. I suspect this issue will ultimately end up before the Constitutional Court.
In the interests of optimism, I think I need to revisit The Castle, Australia's true-story-happy-ending take on this subject.
Update on the story: The fight is ongoing at all levels. According to Grunenwald, since the film's conclusion:
The Pondo selected Crown Princess Wezizwe Sigcau as heir to their throne, but President Zuma has filed papers in court to install Zanuzuko, a person who had previously been imposed on the people as their traditional king. Responding papers were filed by her attorney during early May 2015.
SANRAL [South African National Roads Agency] filed affidavits in court claiming community members' approval of the Wild Coast Toll Road. A highly respected, elected member of the Coastal section (Section 24 Umgungundlovu) of the Amadiba Traditional Authority community asserts that her signature was forged on such approval forms; and there are names on the approval forms who are not known members of the community"
Andrew Lashbrooke, who in the film is the CEO of the mining company, resigned and is suing his Australian former partners. On 6th March 2015 the mining company reapplied for mining rights for the third time. On 9th April 2015 they attempted another public participation but were chased out by the coastal community who again made it clear that the majority are not interested.
In May 2015 violence broke out between pro-mining and anti-mining groups when Zamile 'Madiba' Qunya and Chief Lunga Baleni tried to lead a convoy of cars to implement the mining company's Environmental Impact Assessment. Members of the community blocked the road, violence broke out and one person was hospitalised. An application was lodged in the High Court to obtain an urgent interdict to prevent Zamile Qunya and his brother, Chief Baleni and others from threatening and assaulting community members opposed to the mining of their land.