Celebrating their win at the Durban International Film Festival were Ronit Shapiro, Nokuphila Cele, Andile Nxumalo, Amanda Ntombela, Wendy Mkhwanaza and Karin Slater.
Durban - Five young women from KZN have blazed a trail that might even go as far as the Oscars - and beyond - when it comes to making an impact on other women’s lives.

This is after their documentary, Sisters of the Wilderness, filmed in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, won the Best South African Documentary at the recent Durban International Film Festival Awards (DIFF).

The film, by creator and producer Ronit Shapiro and director and cinematographer Karin Slater, tells the story of five young local women - Nokuphila Cele, Andile Nxumalo, Amanda Ntombela, Wendy Mkhwanaza and Thembani Mdunge - who embark on a journey of discovery on the famous iMfolozi Wilderness Trail. Over a number of days, the young women - exposed to the elements and carrying everything on their backs that is needed for their journey - face emotional and physical challenges and learn what it takes to survive in the wild.

With DIFF now included as a Documentary Feature Qualifying Festival by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Sisters of the Wilderness qualifies for consideration for an Oscar nomination.

This week, Shapiro, who is based in the UK, described the award as “a dream come true”, with the concept of the documentary being inspired by the late legendary conservationists, Dr Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela, whose “profound dedication and commitment to wild nature, especially the Zululand wilderness where they worked and lived, touched me deeply and led me on this journey”.

Shapiro added: “It is very special and meaningful to have received the award in Durban, in the region where the film is set. This will definitely help us on our social impact journey to make a real positive difference to young women’s lives and to wild nature.”

She said that the prize money from the award would be used to kickstart an outreach and audience engagement programme in KZN.

Shapiro also confirmed that the process for submitting the film to the Oscars for consideration had began: “This is exciting and overwhelming at the same time. May the universe help us on our quest to win an Oscar. I didn’t expect that this avenue would be open to us so soon.

“I feel that we have a fair chance at the Oscars because more and more people feel the need to balance their lives and live in oneness with nature and each other.

“Sisters of the Wilderness gives the audience the space to immerse (themselves) in the wildness through the story of the young women, the beautiful imagery shot by Karin Slater, our director, and the soulful music of Ian Arber, our wonderful composer.”

Shapiro said the social impact goals of the documentary are to reach as many young people as possible, so as to raise awareness of the necessity to reconnect with nature and the value of wild nature to our well-being; to empower young people to have faith in themselves, particularly young women; to assist in helping efforts to save rhino, elephant and other endangered species; as well as to raise awareness of the threat of open-cast coal mining on the edges of the iMfolozi wilderness.

Speaking on her journey into the wild, one of the young women, Amanda Ntombela, said: “Lose yourself to find yourself, for the wilderness is your first home. The journey with the Sisters of the Wilderness was like a sign from the universe.

“I had an idea that nature was the key, but I really didn’t know that it was a tool, a map to self-discovery, for I didn’t think I was lost. This experience has changed my sense of everything, of myself and my surroundings.”

The judges said the documentary was “a film which dares leave the beaten track of traditional documentary filmmaking in exploring the cinematographic wilderness.”

As well as using the film’s award funds to further the planned impact programme by screening the documentary to as many young people as possible, Shapiro will also be fundraising for this initiative. For further information, email [email protected]

The Independent on Saturday