They left South Africans on the edge of their seats with hit true crime series such as Devildsdorp, Rosemary’s Hitlist, and Steinheist.
Now production agency IdeaCandy is at it again.
This time they are bringing to life the horrific two-part true-crime documentary, Convict Conman, which looks into South African sexual predators Dawie de Villiers and Michael O’Connor.
The documentary, which is now streaming on Showmax, follows parallel investigations into De Villiers and O’Connor.
In 2012, Carte Blanche journalist Sasha Wein receives a tip-off to investigate De Villiers, a Kempton Park photographer and founder of Modelling South Africa.
Described in the first episode as “a sophisticated predator” and “the Kempton Park Hugh Hefner”, de Villiers is accused of fraud and of being sexually inappropriate with aspiring models, some below the age of 16.
Nine years later, in 2021, with De Villiers sentenced to life in jail, investigative journalist Jana Marx (Devilsdorp) receives a tip-off to look into O’Connor.
He runs a photography publication and is looking to start business and fashion magazines, too. It’s during the Covid pandemic, so his staff have never met him - or even seen his face. O’Connor claims De Villiers is a “good friend” but what else do they have in common?
The Showmax Original is directed by Safta-winning editor Nikki Comninos, who makes her directorial debut.
Comninos has been nominated for three Saftas in the past two years for her work on Steinheist, Devilsdorp and Murder in Paris.
Speaking to Saturday Star this week, Comninos says she is delighted to have made her directorial debut on such a gripping documentary.
“I feel greatly privileged to be able to create work for Showmax,” says Comninos.
“I am really proud of the series and I had a wonderful time making it together with a brilliant team.”
Giving insight into Convict Conman, Comninos says the series looks at De Villiers, a self-styled "model boss" from Kempton Park who preys on the hopes and dreams of young girls.
“When journalists delve into a few complaints about him, they uncover many, many young women with the same story of Dawie's abusive tactics,’ says Comninos.
“Then a mysterious businessman enters the story, a man with a strange interest in protecting this sex pest.
“This is a story about the crisis of sexual abuse in our country, it looks at the tactics that are used by pedophiles and conmen but it also celebrates the women and journalists who exposed these men.
“All too often this abuse happens behind closed doors and Convict Conman swings this door wide open.”
Asked why Convict Conman chose to focus on these two cases, Comninos says: “These cases springboard a conversation around tactics of online conmen, both Dawie de Villiers and Michael O Connor.”
“Their modus operandi is disturbingly similar and they also take their cues from global characters like Andrew Tate.
“Looking at these cases provides an opportunity to analyse the disturbingly frequent conman who starts his ploy online.
“Dawie was operating in Kempton Park for several years up until 2012 when a tip-off to a journalist put scrutiny on his behaviour.
“He was using his power as a ‘model boss’ to lure young women to his house. Michael was operating in 2021 and used his power as a ‘media boss’ to lure professionals to his business and began to exploit them for money.
“Their tactics share some disturbing similarities. And ... Michael was also closely investigated by a journalist who received a tipoff.”
Shooting the documentary wasn’t easy, says Comninos.
As a woman, the award-winning director says it was tough to delve into two horrific cases of male predators.
“It is difficult as a woman to delve into these cases, but it also feels empowering to expose predators.
“Many brave women came forward to bring their perpetrators to book and it was wonderful to hear their stories and work together to bring these stories to the screen.
“So any difficulty I felt along the way was well worth it in order to make a story for Showmax that may encourage audiences to talk about gender-based violence and online conning.”
She says she also had sleepless nights while shooting the documentary.
“I had many sleepless nights - but not because of Dawie. But because I wanted to get the story right for the characters.
“I wanted them to be happy with the final product and feel that they shared their time for something valuable. As my first directing work it was also way out of my comfort zone and that played on my mind, too.”
Comninos also faced a number of challenges when shooting the documentary.
“It was difficult to get people to talk in terms of the characters that I thought would be great to drive the story.
“It was also difficult to get official answers from the Department of Correctional Services and the NPA.
“But I think what I felt most was the difficulty in trying to tell this story right. I felt I had a great responsibility and I wanted to try my best to make this story powerful.
“A documentary is always challenging as you rely on the real world and as we all know, the real world doesn't always give you what you want.”
While the documentary is set to prove gripping for all South Africans, Comninos says she wouldn’t be surprised if women showed a keen interest, as recent research has shown that women in particular are fascinated with true crime.
“There are many theories about why women like true crime. One theory is that women are learning how to protect themselves as well as educating themselves on how to avoid getting into situations that others have found themselves in.
“This is a disturbing thought: that women are always seeking ways to feel safer in this unsafe world.
“What I have come to think is that everyone loves true crime - it just seems like with this increasing stereotype around women liking it, men seem almost embarrassed to admit they like it, too.
“I think we are all fascinated by the dark side of the human psyche and it gives us a thrill to watch it play out on screen at a safe distance.”
She too is fascinated by true crime, says Comninos.
“I am interested in the psychology of predators. I am also interested in the fact that we live in such a violent country, and looking at true crime is a way to unpack what might be causing this level of violence where I live.
“I have always enjoyed documentaries and I think in South Africa it is difficult to tell a true story without touching on crime in some way, we are all so deeply impacted by it.”
Comninos has also given some insight into who was interviewed for Convict Conman.
“I spoke to the women who had been targeted by Dawie.
“I am very pleased that these women were brave enough to come forward. I also had conversations with women who did not want to be on camera but who gave me valuable insight into their experiences with Dawie and Michael.
“I also sought analysis and reached out to psychologists, criminologists, and social commentators to help me understand the world in which this story takes place.
“You will feel the powerful presence of Thando Hopa - a model and lawyer - you will hear the astute analysis of media professor Nicky Falkoff, and you will meet the formidable Seehaam Samaai from the Women's Legal Centre, to name just a few.”
Comninos says viewers can expect a tense and riveting ride, with some twists and surprises in Convict Conman.
“With conmen, there are also moments of ‘how on earth could they get away with this’, and in this series, there are also some very powerful moments of women speaking up.”
Asked what she was hoping to achieve from the documentary, Comninos says: “All someone who creates can hope for is resonance with an audience, so I hope people watch it. I hope they enjoy it, I hope they get something from it and I hope it resonates with them.”
She has also spoken of her delight at being able to work with production agency IdeaCandy.
The agency has produced several hit true crime series in the past.
“I think IdeaCandy approaches true crime with integrity.
“The producers want to tell true stories with deep messages, they don't want to superficially explain a crime.
“IdeaCandy spends a great deal of time thinking about the impact these crimes have had on the people involved and that I think helps to navigate the stories to a universally satisfying place.
“I always enjoy working with IdeaCandy, having edited Devilsdorp, Steinheist and Rosemary's Hitlist, now to direct for them is a wonderful privilege and a huge pleasure.”
Watch the trailer: