Screening – Comrades

Screening Friday 14th August, 2009

From the dusty roads of the Soweto township to the manicured lawns of Johannesburg’s suburbs, Comrades follows seven diverse men and women as they train for and compete in a 56 mile ultra-marathon – ‘Comrades’ – run annually by more than 12,000 amateurs between the cities of Durban and Peitermaritzburg.

Over the course of the film we discover these runners’ individual personalities and their stories of hardship and success. But we also gain an insight into South Africa itself, for Comrades’ history is interwoven with that of the country’s.

Since its birth, in the heyday of colonial power, Comrades has grown into South Africa’s most popular sporting event and the only one that is truly multi-racial. But it was not always so; the rise and fall of apartheid is mirrored in the race’s history and this story is told through archive footage spanning the twentieth-century.

Comrades’ history is also told by the characters we follow, who, united in their belief in the race’s social importance, see Comrades as South Africa’s most powerful symbol of unity.

Father Lecheko seems out of place in Soweto in his florescent running shorts and teddy bear collection. He dreams of being a wedding planner but is stuck as a security guard after a fraudster stole his life savings. He believes that running his 10th Comrades is proof of his strength the face of adversity. The trip to Durban is also a chance to meet his son who he has not seen in a year.

Johnny Demas was blinded in a gang fight in 1978 but this has not stopped him running Comrades 18 times. Running was a way out of the anger that consumed his early years. He’s piloted by a faster runner, Moses- his factory co-worker and a local priest who says you can’t beat the feeling of crossing the finish line with Johnny.

“Running is my life” declares Riana van Niekerk, an Afrikaans professional runner from Pretoria. Coached by her anxious husband Allie, her life is made up of training and watching sport on television. Last time she ran, Riana overtrained and collapsed at 60k. This year she’s going for gold.

Peter Lepobo hasn’t the same time to train, working long shifts as a miner. He’s convinced that Comrades is his golden ticket to a new life but needs to shave 40 minutes off his last running time to be in contention.

Andrew Kehele is a national celebrity – the first black man to win Comrades after apartheid; an honour that earned him a meeting with Nelson Mandela. He’s quiet man who attributes his win to his late daughter, who died that same year. This year is his final race before retiring.

Nico Pretorius Jnr is only getting started. At Potchesfostroom university, one of the few remaining bastions of Afrikaans culture, he’s a popular student. However, his attachment to his mother and Bob-the-Builder duvet cover has not earned him much luck with the girls and his Comrades training appears to hamper his social life.

Poppy Simpson – Co-Director & Producer
Poppy is the co-founder of Simtar Productions and an independent producer and director.
She also works for the British Film Institute and enjoys spending a considerable amount of her
time watching archive film.

Comrades is her debut feature documentary.

Dagmar Tatarczyk
– Co-Director
Dagmar’s films have played in twelve international festivals, including Oberhausen and Munich.
She is a graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts, Graduate Film Division at the Kanbar Institute
in New York University. She also has a degree in the Arts from the University of Silesia.
During college, Dagmar worked for the TV program ‘Silesia Journal’, where she wrote and
directed three short films and documentaries. In New York she wrote and directed two more short
films and one documentary.

She lives in London and is the co-founder of Simtar Productions.