Death-defying rebels without a cause

2010-08-05 00:00

CALL them the death-defiers or rebels without a cause: one thing for sure is that both descriptions definitely suit the kind of life lived by a group of Soweto youth who are (in)famous for “surfing” moving passenger trains on the Soweto route.

Over the course of the past four years, film-making company Cinga Productions has followed and documented the lives of three of the most notorious train surfers in Soweto: Bitch Nigga, Lefa and Mzembe.

The result of that was the release of an exhilarating documentary, Surfing Soweto, which was among the local movies showcased during the recent Durban International Film Festival (Diff).

Sara Blecher, director and producer of the documentary, said the aim of the film is to document the lives of these three surfers in an attempt to reveal why they are involved in this life-threatening “game”.

“Our cameras followed them as they heroically rode on the top of trains, ducking as they hurtled past lethal electrical cables; visited the dingy heroin dens of Soweto, or became incarcerated in jails with names like Sun City; and into the intimacy of their homes and families — all in the hope of understanding and articulating their frustrations and fragile dreams,” Blecher said.

Surfing Soweto is also a story of a generation of alienated youth, born during the glowing promise after the demise of apartheid and yet without the skills or wherewithal to reap the benefits of their newly won freedoms.

“By making Surfing Soweto, we hope to give a voice to the unemployed and unemployable youth of Soweto, people for whom the future holds little hope. We have watched our protagonists’ lives fall into disarray and have witnessed their fragile attempts to piece them back together again.

“Two years ago, we cut a version of the story for the SABC3’s Special Assignment programme. The footage of young boys riding trains at speed, ducking cables with over 3 000 volts of electricity running through them, was so dramatic that the piece was picked up by CNN and shown in its Untold Stories slot,” Blecher said.

To further investigate their stories in depth, the film-makers gave each of the train surfers video cameras and they began to record their own lives, which culminated in the production of the documentary.

Blecher admitted that at some stages they were worried that they were not going to get their cameras back, but contrary to popular belief about township youths, they got their cameras, as well as footage shot by the teenagers about their lives.

“Rich narratives came tumbling out — searches for long-lost fathers, fathers dying of Aids, thwarted ambitions, deaths and love affairs and violence, the rawness and struggle and sometimes even humour of their daily lives,” she added.

All this ended in the mysterious death of one of the surfers, Lefa, whose body was found on the railway line bearing three stab wounds, according to his family. Was he killed while surfing or stabbed by his friends for some nefarious misdeed?

Whatever the reason, we see the tragedy etched on the heartbroken faces of his mother and family who continued to love him through thick and thin, always hopeful that his life would somehow turn out positive. This additional footage became integrated into the unfolding layers of the narrative.

Blecher hopes the documentary will help alert other youth who treat the surfers as their heroes, not to get involved in this deadly game. As the story draws to the end, one of the boys, Bitch Nigga, manages to clean up his life by leaving drugs and alcohol, and ends up opening his own hair salon in the township — a dream he had cherished for the better part of his life.

On the other side, his friend Mzembe, is still struggling to fight the temptation of going back to train surfing as the boredom and frustration of being unemployed remains foremost in his life. Despite dreaming of owning a house and raising a family one day, lack of job opportunities remains his main stumbling block. Mzembe survives by pick-pocketing and getting free alcohol from his well- to-do friends.

This is the story of three young friends in Soweto — more than 30 years after their township’s famous youth uprising and 20 years after Nelson Mandela walked to freedom.

Blecher now hopes to get a sponsor for the movie to be taken to cinemas nationwide and for it to be made available on DVD.

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