The documentary Glory Game: The Joost van der Westhuizen Story, which
chronicles rugby legend Joost van der Westhuizen’s battle with Motor Neuron
Disease, premiered at the Silwerskerm Film Festival in Cape Town on 29 August
South Africans are familiar with the story of former Springbok Joost van der
Westhuizen, a story of guts, glory and a fall from grace…But what about
The back story
Van der Westhuizen is most famous for his role as scrum-half for the South African
national team – the Springboks. From 1993 to 2003 he had an enviable sports
career, playing in three rugby world cups and serving as captain of the Springboks
in 1999 and again in 2003. In 2009, a scandal tying van der Westhuizen to drugs
and infidelity unraveled publicly. After making all attempts to deny his involvement
in the scandal, he took ownership of his actions in a public apology.
Fast forward three years; it is May 2011 and doctors have discovered that the rugby
legend has a form of Motor Neuron Disease. It was later confirmed as Amyotrophic
Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and van der Westhuizen was told he had only a 20 percent
chance of living longer than five years from diagnosis.
South African director and producer Odette Schwegler of Bl!nk Pictures has been
working with Carte Blanche for over 16 years. In 2012, Shwegler directed and
produced a piece about van der Westhuizen for the current affairs television show.
The initial response to the promo was largely negative: “People told us “not to waste
their time’, that we were giving “a cheat’ and “a liar’ airtime,’ Shwegler explains.
“As the programme was being broadcast very different comments starting pouring
in – themes of forgiveness and courage and prayer. The response in print media
was unprecedented in my experience – the story, and various spin-offs, made
headlines for weeks.’
A story about humanity
The response to the Carte Blanche episode puzzled Shwegler. What was it about this
story? She sensed it was something more than the man: more than him taking
responsibility for his wrong-doings, more than the disease. It was then that she
realised there was a bigger story to be told here, inspiring her to set about the
making of Glory Game.
“The answer for me was that it was a story about humanity,’ says Shwegler. “Who
hasn’t made mistakes and tried to cover their tracks? Who hasn’t wondered when
punishment would come – and in what form? And, when faced with devastation,
how have we reacted? I realised then that this was a story about every one of us –
about fallibility, courage and redemption. That is what inspired me to make this
Shwegler plucked up the courage to ask van der Westhuizen if he’d be interested in
shooting the documentary, the only question he asked her was: “How much of the
next two years do you require?’
“I told him, six months, however we ended up filming with him for well over a year
as the story just took us there,’ says Shwegler. “His 42nd birthday celebrations
were the following week, and that’s when we started filming. That’s how filming
continued; as something happened, we were there.’
Intimate and real
The Joost van der Westhuizen shown in Glory Game is wheelchair-bound and his
struggle to speak makes him almost incoherent at times – a man very different to
the sports star the world remembers.
The documentary – directed by Shwegler and co-produced by Michael Yelseth and
John Webb – not only documents van der Westhuizen’s battle with ALS, it takes
viewers on a worldwide journey in search of better treatment and research, on a
journey to redemption. “We shot from 20 February 2013 until 22 June 2014. We
filmed in 13 cities, across six countries on four continents, over 15 months,’ says
From the very beginning, the purpose was to shoot the documentary in a manner
that felt intimate and real. This meant minimal crew, lights and camera, while still
producing a production of the highest standard and quality. Shwegler explains: “The
most important thing for me was that the film felt (and was) authentic in every
way. The intention was simply to capture moments as they happened.’
To achieve the intimate and authentic feel Shwegler desired, co-producer and DOP
Michael Yelseth captured the footage using a Canon 5D and Panasonic HDX 900. For
the first nine months of shooting, the documentary was self-funded and Yelseth
donated his time and equipment until further funding was made available.
In the words of Shwegler, Glory Game is a tale of “fallibility, courage and
redemption’ – a tale of humanity. “Joost is an international icon – an icon that fell
from grace and then rediscovered his humanity through a death sentence. More
than that, I think (and hope) that when people see the documentary, they will
resonate with something else. Humanity. I hope that anyone watching this takes a
little bit of a look at their own lives. I did. The making of this film has completely
changed my life,’ Shwegler concludes.
The film was commissioned for broadcast by M-Net Movies and kykNET, initially on
Box Office and later on PayTV – kykNET and M-Net movie channels. The production
will have selected private cinema screenings in South Africa and will then follow the
film festival route.
Glory Game will be available on DStv’s Box Office this November.