May 31, 2007
Surfing Soweto

Watch the program: Part 1 | Part 2

In South Africa it’s illegal to film on the urban trains. The government agency that runs this service is very worried about the public seeing what actually goes on. So when we had the idea to make a film on this subject we were not sure we would ever be able to get any actual footage of kids surfing trains.

Then as luck would have it, just when we were doing research, the private security guards, who are responsible for policing the trains and the stations, went on strike. At that time, however, we had not yet secured any commission or budget for the film. It was a tough call because we knew it was a perfect opportunity, or maybe the only opportunity as it turns out, to film freely on the trains but we had no money at all.

This documentary was made with no budget and deferred payments. It was made only because we knew train surfing would tell an important story about the youth of Soweto.

With no guards or private security people on the trains to prevent us from entering the stations at will with our camera we were able to film some of the only footage ever shot of train surfing in Soweto. The disadvantage of this however was we ourselves had no protection at all. And South African trains are a well known hang out for criminals and gangsters so filming was quite a nerve-wracking experience.

At one point while we were filming with one of our main characters, Lefa, the police actually stopped the train while it was between stations and locked all the doors so they could conduct a carriage to carriage search. This was right at the height of the strike when criminal activity on the trains had reached epic proportions. Lefa reacted immediately when this happened and disappeared into another coach leaving Dimi alone with the "illegal camera." Luckily she looked respectable enough and her bag wasn’t searched on this occasion.

The other nerve wracking part of shooting this documentary was the constant terror that the boys would be killed during filming. It is one thing to be making a film about such a dangerous activity but all together another to be causing it. We were as careful as we could possibly be in terms of ensuring that no harm came to anyone participating in the film. But accidents do happen and each day we came home from filming we both silently said prayers thanking whatever power there is from giving us another accident free day. Luckily no one was hurt or injured during our filming.

One of the funniest things that happened on the shoot was the day when we were filming with Prince. From the time we met him early in the morning at his house he carried a grey briefcase, which he was at great pains to ensure was looked after at all times while he surfed. At the time we didn’t know he was a hairdresser. We asked him what was in the case. It was funny watching a hardened train surfer open his briefcase and reveal hair brushes and a hair dryer.

Since the documentary has been aired on South African television there has been extensive interest in our characters and their antics. Metro Rail, which is the government agency that runs the train service, has now hired Mzembe and Lefa.

Today they work as consultants whose job it is to go around and persuade vandals and train surfers not to embark on such dangerous activities. Prince has opened a number of hair salons around Soweto and is building himself to be quiet a successful businessman. When Lefa’s girlfriend Nhlanhla’s parents saw the documentary on TV they were horrified to learn of her relationship. She has been suspended from the church youth group. She has since broken up with Lefa.

From Sara and Dimi.
World’s Untold Stories showcases courageous correspondents telling intimate stories of society's most vulnerable people. Often gritty, always powerful tales that open our eyes to a world that is at times disturbing and captivating. Storytelling that is raw and unyielding in its impact. World’s Untold Stories will bring the viewer tales from all corners of the world, and shine light on activities almost never exposed.

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