Closets are for clothes
Good news from the battered local TV industry is that the taboo-breaking, award-winning drama Intersexions is back for a second season. Charl Blignaut and photographer Herman Verwey visited the set.
The lead actor has just spectacularly lost his footing and fallen into the pool as we arrive at the Intersexions shoot. There are hoots and cheers.
“I love Abdul,” chuckles the director. “He’s got so much passion he falls in the pool.”
The producer isn’t as amused. One of her radio mikes just got drowned.
The actor, Abdul Khoza, apologises profusely. The producer’s frown fades. It’s hard to hold a grudge against the charming 25-year-old, all muscles, tattoos and teeth.
This is one of his first professional gigs, even though he’s already a known face.
He won the reality show Class Act and, a few months ago, gave up his job as a fireman in Durban and moved to Johannesburg to pursue a career in acting.
He’s a brave young man.
And not just because there are fewer jobs available in an industry bleeding from recession and the crisis at the public broadcaster.
Major production companies have closed down and there’s been a virtual freeze on drama commissions.
Khoza is playing the role of Two Step, a rising soccer star who lives here in the dappled suburb of Parktown with his beautiful fiancée, Rea.
Freshly middle class, they seem to have it made. But at the start of the scene Two Step is out at the pool, angrily kicking a soccer ball against a wall.
The truth is he is gay and his secret is tearing him apart and tripping up his career.
“Making him a soccer star really pushes the issue of what is manhood,” says Busi Ntintili, who wrote the episode.
“There’s still such a stigma. When we tested the episode in focus groups, the guys were just so happy Two Step was with a woman – even though they knew he was gay.”
“I am anxious about it,” says director and chief creative, Rolie Nikiwe. “Anxious about how the audience will respond. Some people may think Abdul’s gay and have a go at him.”
Nikiwe (35) is a large man with tired eyes and a boyish laugh that he unleashes easily and often.
He’s just flown back from New York where his debut feature Inside Story was once again an audience hit at a film festival.
It’s a pan-African soccer story about a player with HIV, girl trouble and a badass boss. It echoes today’s episode of Intersexions.
Sex and soccer are not what Intersexions is about, though.
The ambitious series takes a conventional drama narrative and drops a brick on it, shattering it into 26 stand-alone stories that, by the end, are all related.
The glue is HIV.
The series tracks a six-degrees-of-separation scenario that follows the virus, not the characters. You’re not just sleeping with a partner but everyone they’ve ever slept with.
Intersexions was created by young producer Uzanenkosi Mahlangu’s Ants Multimedia and stalwart Harriet Gavshon’s Quizzical Pictures.
“It was a difficult pitch,” says Nikiwe. “It challenges conventional formats. We just hoped the audience would buy in.”
It went on to lift 11 SA Film and Television Awards and then a Peabody Award alongside The Wire in New York last year.
More importantly, it was the most-watched local show on TV after popular soapie Generations.
A collaboration between the SABC, Johns Hopkins Health and Education, USAid, the US anti-Aids programme Pepfar and the department of trade and industry, Intersexions is backed by research that includes dialogue with more than 2 000 young South Africans.
At least 30 000 Facebook followers engage online after each episode and the SABC’s radio stations chat about the themes in 11 different languages.
Done right – by showing instead of preaching and by wrapping education inside entertainment – TV drama can significantly affect behaviour change. Soul City proved it, Yizo Yizo made it hip.
“If that season was about connectivity, this one is about secrets,” says Nikiwe.
“Parents and children not talking, lovers not telling the truth . . . HIV takes advantage of that.”
On Intersexions this season there are recreational drugs, sugar daddies, love triangles, unscrupulous pastors and multiple concurrent sex partners.
Male circumcision is explored.
Lesbian rape is put into focus – and post-rape treatment.
“We tell real stories that you don’t normally see on TV,” says actress-turned-director Catherine Cooke when I pay her a visit on set in Richmond, Johannesburg, a few days later.
“My favourite is a romantic episode about a deaf Muslim woman who moves in next door to a stand-up comedian.
Just that – a deaf Muslim woman in a normal environment.
“It’s something we don’t see. A black optometrist. A gospel singer who sleeps around.”
There’s also a powerful story about polygamy this year.
It was directed by Zuko Nodada, who is today’s director too – busy getting the art department to kill the Kreepy Krawly and scratch the Pick n Pay logo off the shopping bags while Khoza jogs on the spot to work up a sweat for his close-ups.
The 33-year-old Nodada started as an actor. Quizzical offered him a dialogue-coach position on Tsha Tsha and from there he worked in continuity before Nikiwe gave him his big break as a director.
The SABC may still be battling with transformation, but the set of Intersexions is 100% new school and African. Of course, one shouldn’t just throw shade. This happened because of the SABC growing the industry before the corporation hit the skids.
This season of Intersexions is employing four first-time directors and more than 100 new characters.
I ask Nodada about the polygamy storyline.
He says: “This guy has got two wives at home and a mistress in Johannesburg. He wants to marry her too.
The problem is he hasn’t told his wives.
“I had to ask a difficult question: What is the difference between cheating and polygamy when polygamy ignores the traditional rules that govern it, where the wives would be consulted?”
While the set waits for an aeroplane to pass and the hadedas to shut up, I ask Nodada if he’s managing to find enough work nowadays.
“I won’t lie,” he says. “There was a time you’d get three productions all wanting you to work at the same time.
“Nowadays months can pass and no one calls . . . But we will thank the SABC one day. It means most of us are getting out there and trying to make features.”
It’s true that TV’s loss has been film’s gain. Last year, South Africa produced more features than ever before.
During the lunch break, I finally get to ask Khoza about playing a gay man.
“Beautiful,” he says.
I blink and move my recorder away from the coffee cup he’s holding perilously close to it.
“Everyone’s worried about me and water now,” he jokes.
“Beautiful, how?” I ask.
“The chance to play a gay character hardly ever comes around. This is an opportunity of a lifetime as a first-time actor. And it’s a beautiful story.
“If I’m able to even reach just one gay soccer player in South Africa, who knows? It can give them courage to come out and be a role model. Or anybody who’s out there. Hey, the president could be gay and nobody knows.”
“That’s very unlikely,” I say.
Nikiwe has joined us.
He agrees with Khoza.
“I think what we’re really doing is teaching young people to value life – because they are so full of promise.
“If they believe they can reach their dreams, I think they become a lot more cautious about how they live their lives.”
» Intersexions II debuts on SABC1 on February 12 at 8.30pm