How Berlinale Series Selection ‘Donkerbos’ Gives Crime Noir a Distinctly South African Twist

The crime noir genre gets a distinctly South African twist in the new series “Donkerbos,” which premiered its first episodes this week as part of the Berlinale Series Market Selects lineup at the European Film Market.

The show begins when the bodies of six children are found in the forests of a provincial backwater town, and a local detective (Erica Wessels) is called in to investigate the shocking crimes. But as the series unfolds, she’s forced to wrestle with her dark past, her family and a distrustful community to catch the killer before another child is taken.

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Written and directed by Nico Scheepers, “Donkerbos” is produced by Nagvlug Films and sold globally by MultiChoice, which bowed the show last year on its SVOD platform Showmax.

This marks the second year running that South Africa scored a coveted berth in the Berlinale Series Market Selects lineup, which showcases 16 series from around the globe with strong commercial prospects. Last year’s selection included “Recipes for Love and Murder,” a quirky murder mystery set in the South African outback.

Scheepers spoke to Variety in Berlin about how the pandemic inspired his series, how the global streaming platforms are shaking up the South African TV industry and what he’s learned from HBO’s buzzy post-apocalyptic drama “The Last of Us.”

I understand the pandemic was the starting point for “Donkerbos.”
I was in lockdown watching a lot of crime series and realized I’m scared of the genre, which made me excited. Because I’ve never even written a play in that genre. Like, how do you attack this? And then I immediately thought, What could I add that was different? The whole seed for the show came from the question, Can I have a character commit horrifying, reprehensible acts, but still have the audience have empathy with this person? And that’s the whole idea that I built the show around. I was writing the bulk of the show while in isolation living by myself, which is maybe where the darkness comes from.

You were also inspired by the video game “The Last of Us,” before it became a buzzy HBO Max series?
It is still one of the best stories I’ve experienced in any format — how they use the format to tell this completely bleak, almost hopeless narrative, and yet find humanity in it. Because that’s always the main thing for me is to be brutally honest, but also be honest about how humanity finds light in everything, because that’s how we survived. Tell the dark stories but have balance. After I got the commission, I immediately stopped watching crime series. I love watching the opposite of what I’m doing. So then I got back into “Golden Girls” and “Frasier” and started binging ‘90s sitcoms while I was writing this really dark, one-hour drama.

There are so many high-quality, bingeable TV series in the international market right now — particularly in the crime genre. How do you get a show to stand out?
Crime is popular everywhere for the reason that the genre is the closest we come to life, and it walks that line where we all have to believe that there’s one or two people standing between us and chaos. And that’s why this genre will never die, and it works in any language, and it’s a genre that travels. But you can’t just go for tropes. You have to find the specificity within that. I wanted to set the series in the world that I’m the most familiar with, which is that part of rural South Africa. And because I grew up on a farm in rural Limpopo, I wanted to embrace all of the things that make it unique in terms of race relations, in terms of the broken financial and governmental structures. The whole dramatic question is: How does government fail women and children? And what are the systems in place that cannot just fail a child, but create a monster? Which is really interesting to me.

There have been more and more South African series being showcased at events like the Berlinale Series Market Selects and Series Mania. What’s the state of the local industry right now?
It’s really maturing. Amazon and Netflix and Disney+ are all entering the local market and looking for local content. So that’s shaking up an industry that’s been a certain way for 20 years. There’s a few irons in the fire from a few people, but the tide has to lift all the boats. The value of what they’re buying is still not on the level of the Koreans and the Italians. But we’ve all got our fingers crossed. That’s why we’re here pitching, getting new co-production partners and elevating the whole industry. Because there are some incredible stories in South Africa, and there’s incredible talent.

You were inspired by the “Last of Us” video game. What have you learned from the show?
They take complete narrative risks in a $200 million series and they swing confidently. And I think that’s why it’s hitting. There’s a part of my brain that thinks local budget and then the other part of my brain that’s only starting to wake up [to bigger possibilities]. That’s what I want to do. So that’s what I’m going to do. I think that’s what I’m taking from “Last of Us.” Dream big. It’s other people’s job to find the money.

What are you working on next?
There are two shows that I’m shopping in wildly different genres. One is a gothic horror limited series called “Many Hands of God,” set in South Africa in 1910. It’s a slightly magical realist look at how after the Boer War, when the English were still occupying South Africa, men weaponized religion to control not just the local populace, but also women and children. It’s about this young British nurse who has to infiltrate a cult in the mountains to find her son. And then completely on the other end of the spectrum is an LGBTQ, coming-of-age love story that takes place in Coffee Bay on South Africa’s Wild Coast. I just want to make the show because it’s the love story that I never had. It’s seeing two people who deserve to win. And they do.

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