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‘Two people combine to make the power,” growls seasoned Afrikaner canoeist Steve (Grant Swanby) to his Soweto protege Duma (Lemogang Tsipa), as they struggle to get their paddles in sync and the future of South African race relations hangs by a thread. Inspired by a true story of an unfancied black-white duo who managed to win the gruelling 120km Dusi canoe marathon in 2014, Beyond the River sadly can’t muster more than bland motivational soundbites about how sport can heal the nation’s wounds. Resplendently photographed by Trevor Calverley, it feels as if there’s no racial divide that can’t be conquered by a soaring drone shot of glorious veldt.
Duma is drifting into a life of crime, illegally stripping cables for the metal, when he’s forced into returning to the canoe training he ditched following his mother’s death. After providing logistical support for Steve at the Dusi, he proposes teaming up with him for the following year’s race. Steve isn’t threatened by the idea, unlike racist colleagues in the boathouse who make jokes about “African time”. But, set in his ways and nursing a private trauma, Steve is not ready to accept that their partnership might work better with the man once nicknamed “Helicopter”, for his flailing arms, at the front of the boat.
Beyond the River is well meaning, and Swanby proves skilled at hinting at Steve’s complex emotions. But neither his or Duma’s backstory – supporting his little sister, fending off a recidivist pal – is much more than generic. Where the townships are concerned, last year’s The Wound review had far more insight into the current state of black South Africa. Unlike the protagonists, the film refuses to dig deep and never achieves a thematic head of steam. Director Craig Freimond, who also co-wrote, prefers tremulous river montages and peppy exclamations about wanting to be “somebody” over extended scenes that might explore the country’s knotted racial dynamics.
Possibly the uplifting sports drama just isn’t the right place for that, but Ryan Coogler has recently proved it’s possible to push popcorn formats beyond platitudes.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Beyond the River review – canoeists fight South Africa’s undercurrents | Film