Kurt Orderson

Film: Kurt Orderson’s Stories From The Cape Flats

In his full-length and shorter documentaries, the South African filmmaker Kurt Orderson wrenches from oblivion the personal and communal histories of the inhabitants of the Cape Flats, an area of townships on the outskirts of Cape Town to which thousands of displaced persons, his family among them, were obliged to retreat from the 1950s on as a result of the oppressive policies of the Apartheid regime.


Orderson encapsulates the region’s history through the interplay of his protagonist’s testimony and a reliance on historical documents and social artifacts. In his most recent work, Breathe Again, he takes up again a thread of investigations begun years before in The Prodigal Son (trailer above), an exercise in personal and collective memory, which follows him on his journey from Cape Town to Barbados in search of his family’s roots. His search for answers, which brings him together with the various members of the Orderson clan, leads him to a conscientious interrogation of the reasons behind the enormous emigration of West Indians to South Africa; as he follows in reverse trajectory the itinerary taken by his great-grandfather one hundred years before, he arrives back in the Caribbean, after a few months’ respite in the United States, where he senses an instant kinship with the African diaspora community. The circle is completed when the director returns to the shores of Cape Town to share with his family, and in particular with his grandfather Derra, his discoveries concerning their common identity as bearers of the legacy of slavery, of South Africa’s recent past, of the struggle against Apartheid, of the ties that persist between the West Indies and Africa; in the end, he concludes, “It is not important having blood ties. We are all one family scattered all over the world. And what keeps us connected in the natural mystic that blows through the air.”

Orderson’s emphasis on fluidity guides his work; his narration is organic, and the transitions from personal history to historical document, from real spaces to idyllic ones, never strike the viewer as abrupt. The director’s voice serves to unify the diversity of interviews, found footage, and animated recreations of historical events, all displayed against the backdrop of the Atlantic ocean with its fraught symbolic and historical overtones for the people of Africa and the diaspora. Water, as an aural and visual metaphor, forms as a bridge between the lyricism of The Prodigal Son and the subsequent stage of his development as a documentarian and community activist in Breathe Again, his most recent film (trailer below). Catch Breathe Again Aug 3rd at the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia.

Here, it is the portrait of his uncle, Derick Orderson, an activist and a gifted swimmer victimized by the racism of Apartheid, that functions as a jumping-off point for the recuperation of the numerous unsung heroes to whom the film is dedicated. With a personal best of 25.81 seconds in the 50m freestyle, two seconds better than the then-world record, Orderson would have been a shoe-in for the Olympic team in any other country in the world; but the discrimination and curtailment of liberty under which South Africa’s black athletes labored in the 1970s impeded his ascent onto the international stage. The personal and the political were inextricably bound for anyone who grew up in the Cape Flats in the 1970s, with its diet of disappointments and the ever present menace of military repression. It was the flagrant and brutal inequality of that time and place that led this ordinarily humble and retiring young man to commit himself fully to the struggle to transform his community, as a university professor and coach, as founder of the Monwabisi Lifesaving Club around the vibrant township of Khayelitsha, and as an athlete in numerous competitions, advocating for the freedom of his peoples.

Breathe Again Kurt Orderson
Like many other sportsmen of the time, Orderson adopted as his own the slogan of the South African Council on Sport (SACOS), “No normal sport in an abnormal society,” standing tall against the racial inequalities that sadly persist to this day. Derick’s personal story is interwoven with that of SACOS and its role as a wing of the liberation movement, publicizing the Apartheid regime’s outrages in an international forum: through a rigorous use of historical documents, we are treated to an account of the organization’s founding, the challenges it faced, its achievements and its legacy.

With the advent of freedom and democracy in the 1990s, the principles of this institution have been sadly ignored, as one of the aged activists and swimmers interviewed recognizes, offering a poignant mea culpa. If we had taken those lessons to heart, he says, “we would be further down the line of sport equality.” There remains an enormous need for infrastructure, technical skills, and sport associations in the townships in order to level the playing field, literally and figuratively. If this does not happen, there will be no effective equality and sport will continue to be “a privilege that only the rich can afford to enjoy,” as the director’s sister Crystal, already familiar to us from her valuable commentaries in her brother’s previous work and who acquires greater importance here as producer and voice-over, reminds us toward the documentary’s end. In a country where sport has been essential to the struggle for liberty, it is saddening to see the ground still to be covered in order to realize the dreams of those who sacrificed their shot at Olympic fame so that everyone in their country could have the same opportunities, regardless of their family’s income or the color of their skin. Yet with figures such as Kurt Orderson, the struggle for equality in South Africa goes on. Their adamancy in awakening collective consciousness through the recuperation of the stories of the country’s forgotten heroes, for viewers at home and from other shores, shows that the path marked out by the members of SACOS has not been abandoned…

*Story by Okayafrica contributor Beatriz Leal Riesco