7 must-see South African human interest documentaries

By Stephen Aspeling17 April 2023

7 must-see South African human interest documentaries

Movies enable us to escape to other worlds, while documentaries help us realise just how impressive our own world can be. Having been around for roughly 4.5 billion years, this planet’s bound to have picked up a few good tales along the way. It’s an absolute marvel, something that’s easier to acknowledge if you treat this life-giving chunk of rock called Earth as if you’d just crash landed your spacecraft.

Sir David Attenborough once described the human race as “a plague on the Earth”. As fascinating as the migratory patterns of an unladen African swallow may be, our species is 8-billion strong, which should ensure we don’t run out of “human interest” pieces anytime soon. Here are seven documentaries, now available on Showmax, about some of the most unforgettable stories to come out of South Africa.

Against All Odds: The Alwyn Uys Story

This sports documentary tracks inspirational athlete Alwyn Uys, a paraplegic man whose indomitable spirit continues to push him to go faster, further and higher. Having been a star rugby player, Alwyn’s dreams of ever playing for the Springboks were dealt a blow after contracting a rare intestinal condition. After miraculously surviving a car accident, the natural go-getter attached his dreams to a different star.

Prolific documentarian Stefan Enslin captures the fiery drive and determination of Uys, who prepares for an arduous 7.8-kilometre swim from Robben Island to Eden on the Bay. Going back in time to chronicle the young man’s life before the wheelchair, Against All Odds captures his relentless mind-over-matter journey. A tale of the triumph of the human spirit, this rousing and sleek sports documentary trades in rugged determination and eternal hope.

War Dogs & I

War Dogs and I is on Showmax

Never underestimate the power of human resilience – able to withstand hardship, disease and the crushing realisation that our parents are far from perfect. Former South African cricketer Kobus Olivier can add war to that list after he and his four beloved dogs escaped the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Headed for Poland, the dislocated South African’s remarkable cross-country journey unfolds in this sentimental and thought-provoking documentary.

Shot during the pandemic, this unconventional film was crafted remotely by director Stefan Enslin and his team. Rewinding to before the invasion of Ukraine, War Dogs & I weaves an honest, sweet and gentle character portrait of the humble Olivier. Grounded, emotive and often picturesque against European vistas, it’s a heartwarming and feel-good true story.

Unstoppable: The Rebecca Nagel Story

Unstoppable- The Rebecca Nagel Story is on Showmax

Rebecca Nagel is a fighter whose never-say-die attitude has shaped her life. Retracing the fitness coach’s story before she lost the use of her legs, Unstoppable centres on Nagel’s gruelling mental and physical preparation for an onerous off-road event not intended for wheelchair competitors. From nostalgic photo albums to intimate interviews, the visually striking documentary carries Nagel’s courageous and defiant spirit.

Tenacious and tender, Unstoppable is a frank, compelling and enjoyable character study and sports documentary that creates awareness about living with disability. While the tough beauty and filmmakers encounter a series of unexpected challenges on the big race day, Nagel’s grit and determination remains relentless and inspirational in her pursuit of this epic and gutsy achievement.

Blind Ambition

Move over chess, wine-tasting is also a sport! This is undeniable in the entertaining and rousing documentary Blind Ambition, about four sommeliers who rise up to form Zimbabwe’s first national team. Joseph Dhafana, Marlvin Gwese, Tinashe Nyamudoka and Pardon Taguzu’s amazing true story found the unlikely dream team swirling, sniffing and spitting their way to the World Blind Wine Tasting Championships in Burgundy under the watchful eye of eccentric freelance coach Denis Garret.

This uplifting story captures the same infectious spirit of Cool Runnings, as filmmakers Robert Coe and Warwick Ross craft a charming, patriotic and thoughtful documentary from the context of the immigrant’s journey in South Africa. Full of heart and humour, this upbeat documentary is a crowd pleaser whether you wine and dine or not.

Stella Murders

Sharnelle Hough and Marna Engelbrecht’s double murder rocked the peaceful dorpie of Stella in the North West. At first thought to be suicide, the details surrounding the tragedy come to light as intimate interviews with family, friends, journalists and locals offer an emotional account and further insights. The insidious acts of violence shook the 4 000-strong community to the core after what appeared to be an open-and-shut case.

This gut-wrenching and vivid true crime documentary is about catharsis more than sensation, giving those affected a chance to tell their heartbreaking stories from a deeply emotional and honest place. Devilsdorp documentarian David Enright gives the victims voice by way of their tight-knit community as they recount the events leading up to their grisly murders and the aftermath of the incisive yet muddied investigation.

Influence

Founded by Lord Tim Bell, the nefarious PR firm Bell Pottinger is at the centre of Influence, an eye-opening documentary from journalist and director team Richard Poplak and Diana Neille. Hired to stoke up racial division to distract South Africans from state capture and the rot of corruption under Zuma’s administration, investigative journalists broke a news story to name and shame the agency, which was liquidated within weeks of the allegations.

Getting unprecedented interview access to a matter-of-fact Bell, this unflinching origin story covers some of the firm’s darkest secrets. Examining Margaret Thatcher’s election campaign, “White Monopoly Capital”, and more, Influence is a compelling, slick and often shocking chronicle, leveraging extensive archive footage and elegant visuals to cover this timely documentary in the post-truth era.

Last Blue Ride: The Hannah Cornelius Story

When two Stellenbosch students were kidnapped, the hijacking’s senseless violence became an ongoing media story followed by millions of South Africans. At its centre was Hannah Cornelius, a young woman whose bright light, promising future and model looks made her the picture of innocence, comparable with Reeva Steenkamp and Laura Palmer from the iconic mystery series Twin Peaks.

Through this true crime documentary, crime journalist and writer-director Anthony Molyneaux honours Hannah’s memory and highlights the challenges of South Africa’s criminal rehabilitation. Last Blue Ride recounts the night of the kidnapping through CCTV footage, map visuals and special insights from interviewees. A heartbreaking overview, this film’s compelled by real footage, subtle dramatisation, timely themes and powerful courtroom testimony.