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Unpacking 'Last Blue Ride: The Hannah Cornelius Story'


True crime documentaries seek to delve into the darkness of the human psyche, re-investigate a crime to stoke renewed interest, analyse fresh evidence with retrospective wisdom to reveal compelling new insights or offer a comprehensive overview of much-publicised or long forgotten crime. In the case of Hannah Cornelius, a Stellenbosch student whose murder made world headlines, the goal seems to be more in line with the idea of delivering a comprehensive overview. Last Blue Ride: The Hannah Cornelius Story is written and directed by crime journalist, Anthony Molyneaux, who says the documentary "intends to honour her memory and highlight the difficulties rehabilitating criminals inside South African prisons".

Last Blue Ride

The story of two hijacked Stellenbosch students was followed by millions of South Africans, who were alarmed by the senseless brutality and eager to see justice take its course. Hannah Cornelius became the face of the incident much like Laura Palmer did in Twin Peaks but it's her surviving friend, Cheslin Marsh, whose traumatic night found him bundled into the boot before being stoned in the middle of nowhere and left for dead. A resilient yet vulnerable Marsh is a key interviewee, who relays Hannah's character and the events of the night from his limited perspective. A family friend offers some insights from the Cornelius side with her father and autistic brother the only remaining members of their home after her grandmother's passing and her mother's disappearance, all within the space of two years. Many marriages struggle to endure the loss of a child under normal circumstances. However, when one's pride and joy is taken away in such a violent, disturbing and public manner - the consequences can lead to even more tragedy.

This is what makes Last Blue Ride such a tricky documentary. Having only taken place 5 years ago with the ongoing gender-based violence crisis, you can understand the sensitivity around the crime's re-emergence as well-publicised as it was. Add the tragedy's far-reaching implications for the family and you can understand why no direct family members feature in Last Blue Ride. As one of the criminals says, it's already happened - there's no going back. This is what makes Last Blue Ride powerful yet awkward, wanting to cover the crime without becoming as lurid as many other documentary films within the canon of true crime.

Avoiding sensationalism and paying respects to the survivors, this documentary serves as more of a true crime overview than a retrospective investigation. Yet, there's an awkwardness in wanting to capitalise on a sensational story but then chronicling it from some distance. This respectful air makes it safe, shying away from presenting the heinous details of the rape and murder using the victim's image and tragic story as a way to usher in criticism around rehabilitation in South Africa's overburdened prison system. While Molyneaux's open statement helps explain the film, the true crime documentary is primarily sold on the name and recognisable face of Hannah Cornelius.

Last Blue Ride

Leaning heavily on CCTV footage and a map to show the movements of the stolen vehicle and its occupants, Last Blue Ride pieces together the events of that fateful night. The strange and mysterious title refers to the distinct and iconic blue Citi Golf, which was hijacked outside student apartments in the early hours of the morning. Following this, we get an aerial view of their many stop-offs and crimes over the hellish 11-hour ordeal. The spontaneity and rawness of the actual footage does what news stories can't, relaying the blue Citi Golf's drive through the Stellenbosch region with an overarching doom to what are a young woman's final hours.

Last Blue Ride: The Hannah Cornelius Story does serve as a tribute to Cornelius, whose youth and model looks constantly remind us why this tragic story became so easy to circulate. At one point, someone describes her as Reeva Steenkamp-ish to connect the dots with another high profile murder case. The 21-year-old had a promising future, an unknowingly beautiful person whose life was cut short by a brazen and senseless crime. While we cycle through many photos of the late Cornelius, it comes as some relief that her friend Cheslin Marsh is still with us today despite some scars and a loss of hearing in one ear. Interviewees reiterate that while Hannah's bright light and independent spirit shone through, this spotlight could have fallen on many other women who suffer equally violent and tragic deaths.

The first half of Last Blue Ride chronicles the night's events and crimes, getting special insights from interviewees and presenting CCTV footage to piece the puzzle together. While Hannah's name is in the title, the documentary shifts focus in the second half, moving over to the names and faces of the accused. As they find themselves in court, the focus sharpens as their gang affiliations come to light and the documentary zooms in on South Africa's failing prison system with an 87% repeat offence rate. Being members of the 26 and 28 numbers gangs, the political ecosystem of prisons means these criminals are simply shifting into a regimented power structure with an established ranking in jail. Unable to get work and kickstart their lives after serving time in the outside world, it becomes clear how repeat offences and a brazen attitude amount to near-invincibility when there are simply two states of being.

This switcheroo is directly related to the first part of the documentary, but skews matters as the filmmakers attempt to understand the motivations of the criminals and point the finger at the state's failings. While this detour is timely and fascinating, there's enough material to justify a broader investigation and standalone documentary without overshadowing the victim in the process. This scattershot focus makes it seem as though the film had to be salvaged from a different version or rescued from some fundamental problems. Perhaps key interviewees pulled out or there was a last minute change in direction or funding, either way it just comes across as a hybridisation.

Incorporating this prison system aspect makes it seem like an add-on to stretch out Last Blue Ride into a feature film. Coming in at 58 minutes, it's still quite short and provides an overview rather than a deep dive. This is a pity because the safe and relatively lightweight treatment seems content to avoid key interviews, tough questions or a detective's hat re-examination. Last Blue Ride: The Hannah Cornelius Story does offer a compilation of important points, behind-the-scenes footage and serves as a thought-provoking retrospective, but seems to come up short in a bid to necessitate itself.

Last Blue Ride: The Hannah Cornelius Story tries to blend several perspectives in its retelling, largely compelled by the spontaneity of the real footage, dramatisation and heartbreaking interviews. Offering a good overview of the story from the hijacking to sentencing, it's at its most powerful in the courtroom in the presence of emotive testimonies and in the face of hardened criminality. Swathed in timely themes around crime and punishment within the context of GBV, these emotional outbursts help the true crime documentary land a gut punch.