As far as weird sports go there’s planking, there’s free running and then there’s train surfing. In the documentary, Surfing Soweto, featured at Hackney Picture House this November as part of the Film Africa 2011 festival, Director Sarah Blecher explores why Soweto’s young, black, male population is fascinated with the extreme adrenaline sport of train surfing and risking life and limb performing acrobatic displays atop, beneath and alongside trains. High tension electric cables and the rising death toll aren’t deterrent enough.
It all started in 2006 with a rail guards’ strike. And with Bitchnigga, renowned in Soweto as the father of train surfing. What Blecher noticed back at the time were the one-liner obituaries: “young black man found dead on train tracks” and their growing frequencies in the daily newspapers. What she found out in the course of the four years it took to film Surfing Soweto is not only that the cause of these deaths is train surfing, but that the sport has become rampant among adolescents in Soweto, has attracted a large female following, that their arena is the rooftop of the 9373 morning train conveying workers from Soweto to Johannesburg, that three boys – Bitchnigga, Lefa and Mzembe are the city’s champions, and that the sport claims the life of one in three participants.
The documentary opens with the image of a train surfer atop the moving 9373. A monologue recounting the fatalities serenades this unlikely gymnast as, with legs splayed, he contorts his body to a rhythm in his own head. With legerdemain he avoids the high tension cables overhead – one graze and he is a goner. He maintains grace unexpected in his life- threatening circumstance, His reed thin body barely acknowledges the force of the wind. Like a jewellery thief dancing within the infrared barrier protecting some valuable piece, he has his sequence down-pat – a flex here, a slide there, then arms spread wide. Only this time the stakes are much higher. And the reward is not riches, it is admiration from the teeming congregation of adolescent females who have turned out to watch his performance.
Over four years, Blecher follows the tortured existence of these champions. Bitchnigga is a heroin addict who hopes to open a hair salon. he knows he could do well if he applies himself to education but train surfing and drugs beckon. Lefa’s mother and sister dread the inevitable phone call, that one that will confirm the fears they’ve carried around since Lefa’s addiction to train surfing was established. Lefa is the only surviving male in his family, he has inherited a love of All-Stars trainers from his father, as well as a penchant for violence towards women. Mzembe has impeccable pedigree. Mzembe’s grandfather is a successful livestock merchant, he educated his eleven children from the proceeds of this trade. Mzembe’s father was in the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement, he died for his cause and his memory is etched in grateful hearts. Mzembe is an alcohol addict; drink and the devil push him towards the trains. A life of crime goes hand to hand with their lifestyles. In explanation of their alcohol and drug binges, their crimes, the illicit stolen-goods trade they conduct with Nigerians and their deleterious past-time, they all have come to one conclusion: “It is Satan.”
But they are not impenitent; in the face of growing fatality they are compelled to swear off this dangerous lifestyle. For Bitchnigga, “being the father of train surfing is one thing. Inspiring kids who end up as bloodstains on train tracks is another.” When a campaign kicks off against train surfing, all three sign up. It would accomplish three things: deter would be surfers and in a sense correct the wrong trend that they had set in motion; it would help force their own wills to renounce train surfing, and it would be a way of earning money and turning from their life of crime. Everything goes well… until one of the campaign members (none of the three) dies train surfing, and the whole thing is called off. Inevitably, the spiral into old habits is a bottle, a joint and a train station away.
In the course of this documentary, which makes copious use of train surfing videos, interviews and historical evidence, and diary-entry type quotes from its subjects, one worries that the boys seem too comfortable being filmed. Are they playing up to the camera? Blecher explains that for the most part they filmed themselves, “They are letting you see their lives,” she says. “And a lot of it isn’t pretty.” equipped with basic cameras and the skills to operate them, they make us privy to their private thoughts and actions. We accompany Mzembe to his grandfather’s house, and with him make tearful acquaintance with a half sister he never knew existed. With Bitchnigga we utter a prayer of salvation by candlelight, and we feel the agony of loss when Lefa searches in vain for his father’s unmarked grave. He had died of Aids while his son was away.
Surfing Soweto is an expansion of Blecher’s shorter piece, and is about the extents to which the human spirit can stretch in order to cope with present circumstances. When they are on top of a train concentrating on not getting hauled off by an electric cable during a daring stunt, knowing that missing a beat can cost their lives, they can block out the rest of the world. With many fathers lost from apartheid, there are few role models to teach the youth of Soweto how to become men. And diseases like HIV and its opportunistic illnesses are claiming breadwinners and forcing the young to confront stark financial realities.
The documentary concludes by affirming the death statistics – “for every three, one dies.” For the young men of Soweto the future is bleak and life is short. Maybe it is not just an unfortunate omen but a recognition of his “Leviathan” reality that prompts Lefa to beg his sister to dress him up in a suit and make him look like a “decent chap” for his funeral. Like many of the youth of Soweto, his days are numbered unless drastic measures are taken to improve the social standard. Unfortunately, the system seems to have disclaimed them. Maybe train surfing isn’t quite so puzzling after all – it’s their way of going out on their own terms – gangster style.