Stefan Enslin on ‘Against All Odds: The Alwyn Uys Story’

On 13 December 2014 Alwyn Uys, an ambitious young man with a promising aptitude for rugby, had an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Facing a drastically altered life Uys set his mind on a feat never accomplished by a paraplegic athlete: swimming from Robben Island to Eden on the Bay.

Against All Odds: The Alwyn Uys Story documents the inspirational journey to Alwyn’s historic attempt, and the treacherous swim itself. We spoke to director Stefan Enslin about his part in Alwyn’s mission to inspire others.

How did you become aware of Alwyn Uys and his plans to swim the Robben Island crossing?

One of my friends, Nelis Engelbrecht, followed Alwyn on social and arranged to have a coffee and hear his story. After that they contacted me and the rest as they say is history.

We hear Alwyn conceptualize his life as a story through which he’ll be remembered, one he refused to let define him as a promising young man who couldn’t overcome the misfortune that was dealt to him. What was it about Alwyn’s story that drew you to tell it?

In a sense it is very similar to mine. I wasn’t always a filmmaker. After school, life took me in different directions, but my heart always longed to tell stories. And then one day I thought – I don’t want to be 90 years old one day and wonder what my life would look like had I followed my calling.

After the accident, Alwyn wanted to commit suicide – was that really his life story? He had an accident, could not deal with being paralyzed and committed suicide; or was there more to his life than that? And Alwyn has shown how his life is filled with so much beauty because he refused to give up or in. That is very inspirational for me, hence wanting to tell his story.

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When showing some footage of Alwyn before his life-changing car accident, these clips and images are often made to resemble old film stock or slide projections. As a director, how did you approach framing Alwyn’s life before he found, as he puts it, his purpose?

I wanted everything before the accident to be good memories of a full life. Hence the resemblance of old film stock or slide projections – to show how this life is part of beautiful and good memories. From there on, as he puts it, his purpose-driven life is filled with shots where the sun is bright, almost like a spotlight shining on him, to highlight this purpose he has found and how that impacts everyone around him.

Did your view on the nature of the story you would be telling change at all as you became involved, as it progressed or as you were putting it together in editing? Did you ever believe Alwyn might not be able to accomplish his goal?

To be honest, there was never a moment where I doubted that Alwyn would be able to accomplish his goal. He is one of the strongest minded people I have ever met. The only way he won’t be able to accomplish his goal is if God stops him. We had tense moments due to the weather not playing along, but Alwyn even stopped those fears due to his incredible faith and believe in God.

How important do you consider Alwyn’s faith to his story, and the film itself?

It is the single most important aspect. And I get the question a lot. Why did you not go deeper into his faith and the darkness of his depression to the point of wanting to commit suicide? The reason is simple; if you meet Alwyn you will know that his faith is so strong he does not have to ponder over things. And I wanted to highlight that by not going deeper and lingering on details of trying to get out of his depression. He said God told him He still has plans for Alwyn and that was it, Alwyn didn’t commit suicide.

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Cape Town looks very dour throughout the film, is this simply because in the present narrative-thread you’re grounding us in Alwyn’s surroundings mostly around the time of his swim, or because you wanted to suggest a mood going into his Herculean effort?

I wanted the focus to be on Alwyn. Basically to let him stand out as the hero in the dour appearance. That way all his achievements, especially the Robben Island swim, could be experienced with him. Doing the swim even for an abled swimmer is not easy so you can only imagine what Alwyn went through and I wanted the viewer to experience all of that with Alwyn.

There is much focus on how difficult the 7.5km swim was to endure in the moment. Typically in sports documentaries the hard work of training can be where we dwell in the dark, and the race is a triumph as reward, but you take some time to zero in on the exertion, the mental blocks that present themselves as it goes on. Why?

The reason was because the training is almost the easy part but during a race, much like life, we get tested to our utmost limits. And again, I wanted the audience to experience these difficult moments with Alwyn, because if he can overcome these turbulent conditions (the water was freezing and the current incredibly strong) I can help the viewer, through Alwyn, to believe that they are also capable of overcoming all odds.

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The film ends on a promise that for Alwyn, this is “Just the beginning”, and indeed he has gone on to complete the Ironman, and has plans to summit Kilimanjaro. Would you be interested in reuniting to document Alwyn’s climb in some capacity?

Without a shadow of a doubt, I would love to be involved in capturing that incredible feat of summiting Kilimanjaro.

Most powerful films move audiences emotionally, but I think people most often fold the lessons of a film into their lives when they can be sure that what they’re seeing has really happened, as in a documentary. What do you hope people take with them after seeing your film?

That giving up is not an option. Your strength does not lie in your body, it is all in the mind.