Telling the African Story Abroad

Pick of the world’s doc crop

Every year at this time the Hot Docs film festival in Canada features the world’s finest storytelling. With a public audience of almost a quarter million and over 2 000 industry delegates it is a premier event for the international industry. And every year there is an increasing African presence.

The art of storytelling is ancient but documentary filmmaking has only relatively recently become a thriving industry on our Continent. This year at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto there was a significant African delegation and three films that were picked to represent the best in the world.

The Shore Break a feature length film was screened to enthusiastic audiences, Orbis was among a prestigious collection of shorts and Tuk Tuk from Egypt turned informal taxis into high drama.

Lawyer Odette Geldenhuys, The Shore Break Producer, at Hot Docs 2015

Lawyer Odette Geldenhuys, The Shore Break Producer, at Hot Docs 2015

Two Pondo cousins from a close-knit rural community have opposing plans for their homeland on South Africa’s Wild Coast. Nonhle wants to preserve their traditional lifestyle, homes and graves through eco-tourism while her older cousin Madiba plans to mine their land for titanium to create jobs and infrastructure. Madiba supports the South African Government’s plans to build a Wild Coast tolled highway through their land that some believe is routed along the coast to transport the titanium minerals.

Meanwhile, the Pondo King and Queen are dethroned by Government after speaking out against the developments. To fight for their throne the Pondo Royals must take Government to court who have replaced the King with his pro-mining nephew.

Global Issues

The festival audience engaged in a dynamic Q&A session with one woman putting her finger on the pulse of the story
“This is not just a South African story. This speaks to the issues here in Canada and around the world,” she said.

With splendid camera work and the storyteller’s painstaking patience and dedication, the film explores a story that spans many decades. The unspoilt beauty of the Wild Coast settles into your soul, making the fight about land and mining rights even more heartbreaking.

Director of The  Shore Break Ryley Grunenwald

Director of The Shore Break Ryley Grunenwald

But the storyteller does not go for easy fixes. There are no good guys and bad guys. Just a story of people struggling to find a way forward out of a typical impasse between modernity and human rights.

The 90-minute film never flags because the tale has been carefully constructed to obey the dictates of excellent storytelling. The main characters are engaging and without any voice over narration they are allowed to take us through all the nuances, complexities, darkness and humour that an epic story requires.

The Shore Break Director is Ryley Grunenwald who is also one of the producers as well as the Cinematographer. The other Producer is Odette Geldenhuys who is a lawyer – she does the pro bono work for Webber Wentzel – as well as filmmaker.

Elder and herbalist Mr.Samson Gampe  © The Shore Break

Elder and herbalist Mr.Samson Gampe © The Shore Break

Experimental Film

At another venue across town a very different film grabbed the attention of festival goers. Orbis contemplates a transient global consumer economy.

This observational documentary is an experimental journey through one of South Africa’s largest townships Umlazi, its inhabitants’ existence shaped by their proximity to Africa’s busiest port, Durban.


The threads of four lives are revealed…

Pelalani sets off early each morning with a shopping trolley hunting for scrap metal, destroying televisions, fridges and microwaves.

The 14-year-old Siyabonga draws the Nike sign onto his plain shoes whilst staring at the cemetery opposite his house.

Avela, only 11, is bullied by her classmates for being obese. She dreams of learning to swim, turning to the local seamstress Dudu to create a bright yellow swimming costume.

The superbly interwoven result is a story with a wistful, ethereal appeal.


‘Orbis’ is a meditation on the circulatory nature of the global consumer economy. Durban’s port never sleeps, overseeing raw material endlessly traversing the globe, temporarily shaped as fridges, televisions, washing machines, ultimately destroyed, returned to a creator, reshaped into a new product, trapped in an eternal cycle.
The film is only 20 minutes (in Zulu with English subtitles) but it has a long-lasting impact. It shows us – especially younger filmmakers – that seemingly parochial stories have global resonance and wider audiences.

The Orbis Director is Simon Wood.

Orbis Trailer from SaltPeter Productions on Vimeo.


Thousands of three-wheeled motorised rickshaws—called tuk-tuks—zip through the frenetic streets of Cairo every day, driven by industrious young men, many of them not even teenagers.

Across gorgeously captured sun-drenched streets, Tuk-Tuk (Arabic with English sub titles) follows Abdallah, Sharon and Bika, who, while too young to shave or even obtain a legal licence, are forced to drive to feed their families.

Besieged on all sides by police, thieves and other taxis, the boys take every chance to find a happy diversion or fleeting escape from the prison of poverty. Pulsating with comedy and danger, the film illustrates the resilient outlook of three children who have to become adults before their time, and their struggle to hold on to some semblance of childhood.

“These are the ones who are born carrying the errors of the world around them. They know nothing of life except its cruelty. Three kids work as drivers in the streets of Cairo. We trace their journey from innocence to violence and drugs,” says the Director Romany Saad.

Tuk-Tuk (75 minutes) has been written, produced, edited and directed by Romany Saad. The Cinematographer is Hany Fakhry.

The Global Story Market

Aspirant filmmakers should watch these international trends when tackling their stories. The global story market is a complex and demanding place but when we tell local stories with style and passion they have universal appeal.

Hot Docs is one of the world’s top film festivals. Others to watch for the increasing presence of the African story include IDFA (the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam) in Holland, Sheffield in the UK, Sundance as well as Silver Docs in the USA and Sunnyside of the Doc in France. The Cannes Film Festival is a prestigious but a difficult place to negotiate for up and coming young filmmakers.