The struggle for progress is both perpetual and global. For South Africa’s Pondo people, on its surface, it’s a conflict between tradition and the opportunity for development, as Australian mining company Mineral Commodities Ltd. and the government both lobby to extract titanium from the country’s resource-rich Wild Coast. Even deeper, the contention lies within familial blood as Pondoland’s Amadiba community debates whether or not the opportunity really belongs to them.
“It’s a complex argument,” says filmmaker Ryley Grunenwald, calling the Georgia Straight from Rouen, France, about her documentary feature The Shore Break, which makes its local premiere at the Vancouver South African Film Festival (VSAFF) next Friday (April 8).
Filmed over three years, the visually arresting doc captures just a slice of the Pondo people’s 12-year struggle over land rights. Nonhle Mbuthuma, one of the film’s central characters, provides a memorable metaphor for the ongoing situation.
“It’s like when you take the frog out of your room and then when you turn your back it’s coming in your room again,” she remarks. “No matter how long, we’re going to play this in-and-out together.”
Adding complexity, Mbuthuma is against the mine while favouring the development of the community. “They want the resources every South African should get,” explains Grunenwald.
On the other side is Mbuthuma’s cousin Zamile “Madiba” Qunya, who argues that mining and the government’s concurrent plans for infrastructure will spare the community from poverty. But while the promise of jobs, a hospital, and education seems all too enticing, it would likely come at the cost of the Pondo’s culture, traditions, and, most of all, land. The situation has become even more critical since the completion of the film. Last week, one of the most vocal opponents of the mine, Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, was assassinated in front of his family by unknown assailants posing as police. The Australian mining company denied any connection to the shooting.
However, this wasn’t the first time someone died over the issue.
“There were three deaths before this one. The first was someone who got shot point-blank in the head in 2000, others were potential poisonings that were never proven,” says Grunenwald. “But with the corrupt police in the area being pretty much on the side of the pro-mining people, one can’t really rely on the police to prove any of those cases. This must be really stressful for the whole community. I can go back and live a normal life, but they have to continue fighting this battle. They really need all the international support they can get.”
VSAFF cofounder David Chudnovsky says The Shore Break reminded him that the issues of development, inequality, and the environment are international in scope.
“We immediately saw the connection that we see in the issues of Canada’s indigenous communities. We’re struck by how similar the issues are,” Chudnovsky told the Straight. “When I watch a movie like that, it underlies the connections between us and our neighbours.”
Grunenwald wanted to portray the story as fairly as possible, as both sides offer compelling arguments. “I can see where each are coming from, but my opinion is between the two,” she says. “It’s not a black-or-white issue, there’s a lot of complexity around it. We want to give the audience a chance to think for themselves.”