Following close on the heels of Camille Nielsson’s excellent “Democrats,” about the rocky road to democratization in Zimbabwe, Ryley Grunenwald’s “The Shore Break” offers another engaging African standoff between agents of entrenched corruption and those stubbornly resistant to being hoodwinked. Here, too, the drama is structured around two diametrically opposed protagonists, though this time it’s not strictly a political struggle, but one involving foreign mining interests eager to dig into a pristine slice of coastal South Africa. This accomplished, handsome documentary should appeal to programmers looking for far-flung depictions of the global economy at work.
A gorgeous stretch of the Wild Coast is the object of contention among locals, international business interests and a pro-development national government. An Australian company has proposed opening an ambitious mining operation here to tape the region’s huge stores of titanium. On the plus side, this would bring roads to the remote area (rendering hospitals and other niceties far more accessible), and theoretically at least, everyone would get “rich.” But relatively few residents seem willing to swallow these promises whole, afraid that they’ll lose their farmlands permanently to the mines and its anticipated pollution. Underlining such suspicions is the fact that the neighbors most heavily promoting this drastic change are considered by many “the crooks of the village.”
Chief among them is Zamile Qunya, aka Madiba, a bulky, SUV-driving hustler whom one quickly gleans can be trusted about as far as he can be thrown. He claims he wants only to lift his people out of poverty, but actually few of them seem to feel deprived, most preferring to stick with their traditional agricultural existence. Their principal defender is Madiba’s own cousin Nonhle, a determined bilingual woman (she insists on giving most of her interviews in broken English) who has few illusions about the fate of the community should it be turned into a giant mining camp. Much of her offensive consists of simply calling foul on the pro-development faction’s tactics, which include scheduling a “public hearing” several hours from the village, so no objectors can attend. Shamelessly, the government even forcibly dethrones the ailing King of the Pondo tribe, appointing a business-friendly relative in his place — a judgment the Queen fights all the way to a constitutional court.
While at first the Aussie company’s rep seems well intentioned enough, one begins to seriously doubt it after he proclaims his organization “satisfied” that everything is jake, despite just having been informed that a pro-mine petition allegedly signed by thousands of residents is littered with the names of dead and fictitious people.
In framing the push-pull of this issue as a personal drama between feuding relatives, Grunenwald neglects to clarify some of the larger context. It’s never entirely clear just how much of the community is anti-mine (we’re lead to believe that’s the majority opinion), and glimpses of a largely like-minded but also quite segregated local white populace raise unanswered questions about race relations in the area. Nor is the ending entirely satisfying, as a temporary triumph for Nonhle’s side scarcely lessens the certainty that government forces will continue to keep pushing until they get what they want.
Nonetheless, “The Shore Break” offers an absorbing microcosm of the clash between tradition and “progress” when there are resources to be plundered. It’s a story that is being enacted in every corner of the globe, and there’s something heartening about the fact that Nonhle’s fellow villagers aren’t so unsophisticated that they don’t grasp how little long-term benefit they’re likely to get in sacrificing their way of life for short-term cash.
Polished assembly is highlighted by the helmer’s own lensing, which captures the often spectacular coastal scenery to alluring effect. Diversifying the package’s aesthetic are interludes of sand animation by Justine Puren-Calverley, and a number of soundtracked original Afro-pop songs by Ntombethongo.