The epoch-making Shaka Ilembe is poised to set records as the most expensive local production. The ambitious drama has been in the works for some two years and as Yolisa Phahle, CEO General Entertainment Multichoice Group Africa, revealed yesterday at the DStv Showcase 2020, it has advanced to pre-production.
"It's a hugely ambitious project, the most expensive piece of history in the last 25 years," Phahle reveals without sharing the figures. She adds that the teams are hard at work scouting for locations and seeking the best actors to bring the story of the legend of Shaka to life. To understand the scale of the production, Phahle explains that the search extends to praise singers and stick fighters, costume and bead makers, land and grass, armies of extras as well as animals.
It has been an elaborate and intricate process to tell the story of Shaka "from within" as producer Teboho Mahlatsi from Bomb Productions also explains. He clarifies that Shaka Ilembe is not a remake of the 1980s Shaka Zulu, but rather "an authentic Zulu story told in isiZulu and not English, showing the different worlds that gave rise to Shaka."
Phahle shares that the story of Shaka has proven to be universal and has been welcomed by Africans. "A year ago we played the trailer to people from all over the continent, including Francophone and they saw this is an African story of a leader who outwitted the enemy and changed the course of history of South Africa and other parts of Africa," she says.
At a time when representation matters so much, and movements like Black Lives Matter have brought Black stories to the fore, Phahle sees Shaka Ilembe as a much-needed narrative. "It's significant as Black South Africans to tell our stories. Our democracy is still new and we should ensure that our languages, cultures and histories are valued. No one knows more than South Africans what it's like to be discriminated against, and as broadcasters and journalists, we need to make that change and transformation happen. We have the responsibility to do our part because we have the platforms."
Mahlatsi touts Shaka Ilembe thus: "This is not a historical documentary. We want to entertain. The cast will be beautiful, there will be drama, great conspiracies and family disputes."
In addition to the exceptional offerings in the local content front (including Blood Psalms), Phahle further celebrated the success of Deon Meyer's Trackers, the international co-production with HBO that is sweeping the world by storm.
Espionage meets terrorism in the thriller, where Thapelo Mokoena is a lead detective in a five-part series that takes viewers on a suspense-filled journey that tracks an unsuspecting biochemical terrorist on the streets of Bo Kaap in Cape Town.
International partnerships, she indicated, are key for future successes in the ever-evolving television storytelling landscape.
She points out that the process is elaborate and long before production gets underway and viewers can feast on the wondrous creativity.
"With Trackers, the process started three or four years ago when we invited the head of production in Los Angeles to come to South Africa to experience the quality of our local productions. That led to my meeting with the head of HBO in Asia, who was in Cape Town to shoot Warrior. I later sent her the script of Trackers and they agreed to get on board. Sometimes it doesn't make financial sense to go it alone when you make action shows. We are brilliant at making telenovelas, but with action you need a lot of things such as helicopters and explosions and that costs a lot of money, so a co-production works out well there. It's a whole new world of negotiations to provide our creatives with a space to show off their skills," Phahle says.
Even as she occupies the high office, Phahle is reticent to take credit and pins the success of these projects on teamwork. But she shares that what she looks for in content are surprise, delight, entertainment, a representation of our reality and a paint of a picture of the future we aspire for.