As I drive out of a tar road and onto a mixture of gravel and broken bottles and potholes, I spot a man on his knees on a patch of grass. He is kneeling in front of an old man wearing an offwhite robe. And then? I wonder aloud.
“Hhayi, that’s just where the prophet does his consultations,” Sibusiso explains to me in Zulu. He is one of the crew members on the set of SABC 1’s new drama, Tjovitjo and he’s directing me to the complicated location in Crown Mines, south of Johannesburg.
Having seen a few episodes of Tjovitjo, I know this is going to be a polarising 26-episode drama series. Bomb Productions is great at producing dramas that hold up a mirror to the majority of South Africa but not since their controversial Yizo Yizo has a drama been this reflective, nuanced and interesting.
Produced by Puo Pha, the production company that gave us series like Society, this drama is the second coming of disruptors in the drama genre.
But what is it about?
Viewers are introduced to MaFred, a pantsula dance leader who is troubled by more than what the viewer can see. He straddles the line of being feared and revered by his community and is in love with a girl who only has 50 cents to her name until her birthday.
Tjovitjo has segue-ways that let us into the worlds of other characters in this destitute community. Other stars of the show include Rapulana Seiphemo, Harriet Manamela, Hlengiwe Lushaba, Ntosh Madlingozi and Jabulile Mhlamba. MaFred is the kind of character who seems like a bad guy – sitting upon a dusty thronelike chair – that you can’t help but root for.
But as the award-winning filmmaker, Vincent Moloi, who is Tjovitjo’s director, says, it’s not that simple.
“This is not your traditional villain and protagonist story because everyone has a good and bad side,” he explains in between shooting an emotive scene between two actresses. “There’s no sterring. MaFred does a lot of good and bad things."
"But to sum up: it’s a story about a down and out group leader who realises he no longer has the agility he used to have. He can see power slipping away from him slowly and that frustrates him. Sometimes, when things don’t work out, people drift to the wrong side of life.”
The story concept came from an image burned in Moloi’s mind from childhood. It’s a pantsula dancer-cum-cowboy in a spaghetti western ready to square off with another dancer-slash-pantsula. Over the years, the story developed and most recently, was workshopped with the dancers.
“I never went to film school so my reference is always my experience or the experiences of others where I’m from,” Moloi says. “Throughout that storyline, there are vignettes of the lives of other pantsula group members. We are telling those stories so this won’t be a traditional series where you follow one story throughout. MaFred holds the series together but there are a whole lot of other stories we tell. We want episodes to feel like stand-alone features.”
The vignettes include the do-rag-clad Seiphemo as Bra Terror, who lives up to his name. His daughter, played by Lali Dangazele, is a sheltered girl who desperately wants to join “maTjovitjo”, which is what the pantsula group is called.
Once the shoot breaks for lunch, I spot Dangazele and fellow actress Soso Rungqu walk with their arms around each other’s shoulders. There’s definitely a closeness in the cast. Moloi says the actors had to take dance classes and the dancers had to learn how to act. “Soso got dance classes and broke her leg so she stopped for a bit,” Moloi laughs as he points to the actresses walking together.
“Lali had to get some dance classes. It was an exchange where those who can’t act learn how to act and those who can’t dance learn how to do that. Of course, we had practical difficulties where some of the actors are booked elsewhere so I couldn’t get them to the level that I wanted them to be at with the dancing. The dancers had time so they spent over a year going to Saturday acting classes. We took ourselves seriously and gave it our all.”
This especially shows in the cinematography styles often reserved for art house films. The pace is languid and forces the viewer to sit up and examine their own feelings about what’s on screen. A criminal like MaFred is multidimensional as a character. The acting overall is more emotive than show-and-tell. In short, Tjovitjo forces you to see yourself on the small screen.
Moloi says this was intentional. “Tjovitjo is like a buffet. You have to pick what you like, what works for you and leave what you don’t. Some filmmakers only give you certain elements and spoon-feed you. I want to give the audience the choice to read certain things and connect to what they authentically connect to.”
That’s why the logo of the drama is so well-thought out. The V is red and slightly skew.
“Red is associated with danger,” Moloi explains. “But that V is also tilted and that shows that the world is a bit skew. Things can be perfect and there will be just one thing that is skew and that can mess up the whole thing."
“But that’s what creates the beauty of life. That skew V is looking to disrupt the pattern and that’s what we’re trying to do as well. We’re trying to disturb the pattern of the dramas that have been coming out of South Africa.”
When I leave the set, the prophet is still at it but, this time, on that patch of grass, a woman is kneeling with her head bowed. The image reminds me of one thing: after Sunday, you too will be spreading the gospel of Tjovitjo.
● Tjovitjo premières on Sunday at 8pm on SABC 1.