What killed Odwa Shweni?

Actor Odwa Shweni in front of the waterfall where he fell to his death. Cast and crew say he was happy and enjoying his first major role. Picture: Supplied
Actor Odwa Shweni in front of the waterfall where he fell to his death. Cast and crew say he was happy and enjoying his first major role. Picture: Supplied

Numerous interviews with cast and crew reveal a shocking lack of safety and broken promises on the Drakensberg film set where an actor fell to his death last month. Charl Blignaut investigates.

‘It could’ve been any one of us who fell into the water and went over the waterfall. It had been raining for weeks and the river was flowing strongly. Three other members of the crew slipped and fell in the rock pools before Odwa [Shweni] lost his balance and went over the edge ... There were no safety measures in place. Nothing. No stunt professional, no safety officer, no nets, no cheat shots, just some mats ... It was a cowboy operation ...”

This is an account from one of eight members of the cast and crew of the ill-fated feature film Outside that City Press spoke to in an investigation aided by the South African Guild of Actors.

Their accounts are supported by numerous documents, photographs and videos that reveal how actor Odwa Shweni died, allegedly because of negligence on the part of the film’s producers, during a shoot on April 12, his body found by rescue workers only the following day below the Sterkspruit Waterfall near Monk’s Cowl in Winterton in the southern Drakensberg, which is 40m high.

Outside, at one point apparently named White Outside, is produced by activist and documentary filmmaking couple Sipho Singiswa and Gillian Schutte.

Schutte wrote and Singiswa directed the film, their first fiction feature, which is a kind of political horror movie. Singiswa and Schutte – named Lunga and Jean and played by Shweni and actress Briony Horwitz, according to the call sheet – go camping with their son to take a break from the heat that Jean is getting from right-wing internet trolls after exposing an allegedly racist judge.

At the campsite the family encounters a group of violent racists and their ringleader Okkie, played by Afrikaans actor Louw Venter.

A woman with the men is raped by one of them and Okkie attacks and abducts Jean. Lunga goes after them and the showdown takes place at a waterfall, with Okkie falling to his death.

Tragically it was Shweni who went over the falls instead, leaving the cast and crew traumatised and Shweni’s wife and two small daughters without a husband and father.

The waterfall

The case is now the subject of a police inquest.

The sources paint a picture of a shambolic shoot characterised by arrogance, cost-cutting and gross neglect of industry standards on the part of the producers.

Responding to detailed questions from City Press, Singiswa vehemently denied the allegations raised, calling them “absurd and either grossly exaggerated or devoid of truth” and threatening to take legal action for defamation. “We are aware there are untruths and rumours circulating in the media and will be addressing any libel or defamation that we are aware of in due course,” Singiswa said.

He added that he and Schutte and their company White The Film could not comment as the matter is sub judice.

But there are growing claims against them.

A damning email

“[Schutte] was very aware of our concerns about safety. First we shot in November in the Drakensberg but there was a lot that still needed to be filmed so a second shoot was arranged in April.

“Some people threatened not to go back because of what happened in December when scenes of rape and violence were terribly handled by Sipho [Singiswa] and where they tried to make us shoot at a lake while there was lightning until eventually we refused to carry on.”

After the rape scene, claimed eye-witnesses, a character called Magda was left lying exposed with her panties around her ankles. Instead of immediately attending to her, Singiswa instead joked with the actor playing the rapist that he “seemed to be enjoying it because he took so long to stop after a cut was called”.

In the violent scenes, said sources, they had to ask for safety mats and there was no stunt coordinator or safety officer present.

But Schutte is alleged to have reassured workers that the second shoot would be nothing like the first. In an email obtained by City Press she makes a string of promises about the scene in which Shweni died.

Gillian Schutte, writer and producer of the film, did not answer allegations put to her. Picture: Supplied

Schutte wrote: “We have adjusted your fight scene so there is no sprawling on rocks ... You will need to fall off a ladder and on to soft safety mats. The second shot you will fall from a short height into a shallow pond. This is as dangerous as it gets.”

She said the fight would be shot “a good distance from the edge” with “two spotters making sure no one goes over the safety mark. We will have medics and a stunt person on set.”

However, all sources stated categorically that no safety measures were in place except for the fight being coordinated by a stunt professional in Johannesburg, videotaped and sent to the actors as a reference.

Medics, they said, were present, but were seated about 300m away from the action on the slopes of a 1.3km hill leading down to the falls.

One eye-witness said: “A medic said we can’t shoot after 4.30pm because the rescue helicopters won’t fly after 5pm. He said it’s not safe and to move away from the banks of the river. They [the producers] said ‘no, no, no, no, we want to get the shots’.”

The Kwazulu-Natal Film Commission’s Lungile Duma said film makers could apply to the commission for help to get a permit from the local municipality which in turn monitors sets.

“In the case of Outside the commission was never contacted,” he said, adding that legislation was clear that you may not shoot a film without a permit.

What really happened that day?

The sources described a production constantly running behind schedule, in part because of heavy rain, but mainly because of disorganisation and too few production staff.

The scene that ended in tragedy was supposed to be shot after lunch but lunch never happened. “People were tired and hungry. Sipho [Singiswa] said he wanted to go closer to the falls to scout the fight scene. The next thing we knew the jib [a crane-like device to hold a camera] was being set up and the crew were preparing to shoot.”

Singiswa insisted on shooting close to danger.

“He was even showing off how safe it was, standing at the edge of the falls. Doing one-armed push-ups with an air of bravado ...” said one. Rehearsals for the scene began, despite the make-up artist falling on the slippery rocks and into a pool, injuring her ankle, and two more crew members falling in when they tried to help her.

Director Sipho Singiswa at the edge of the falls, seemingly demonstrating the area was not unsafe according to cast and crew. Picture: Supplied

The actors had only about a 2m run-up each to lunge into a fight that started with them wrestling and Okkie shoving Lunga’s head into the water.

Venter and Shweni allegedly had to ask for mats, which they helped place with duct tape over the surface of the rocky area Singiswa had chosen “a few metres away from the water’s edge and the cliff’s edge”.

Exacerbating things, said sources, was that “the only proxy safety officer present was the assistant director and he was sent up the hill by Sipho [Singiswa] to fetch batteries for the camera just before the scene”.

Ill-prepared and failing to use a long lens to cheat the distance to the edge of the river and falls, cameras began to roll on Singiswa’s instruction.

Not long into the fight sequence Shweni apparently attempted to kick Venter and lost his balance, falling into the river.

Venter also ended up in the water but was unable to grab his fellow actor as he floated rapidly towards the edge.

“He [Shweni] was so happy, he was having fun, this was his first big role, he was that kind of guy, always happy. Even when he landed in the river he had a smile on his face. But when he realised what was happening it faded,” said an eyewitness.

In the aftermath, Schutte plunged into the water to try and save Shweni and then charged off, calling for paramedics and Singiswa used a drone camera to try to locate Shweni’s body. Crew said they were left without guidance as the sun began to set and they made their way back up the slippery hill.

The edge of the waterfall

The missing footage

Back at their accommodation at the Dragon’s Peak Mountain Resort, Schutte was apparently seldom seen again. Singiswa told the cast and crew that the footage from the fight was missing and demanded the return of the camera cards housing it.

These were reluctantly handed over and given to the police.

A source said Singiswa told the cast and crew, “My wife said we must not shoot there, but I insisted.” He apologised for what had happened. Search and rescue divers tried to find the body until it was unsafe to continue and continued the next day, when it was recovered, while police took about five people’s statements at the hotel.

Director Sipho Singiswa. Picture: Christopher Moagi

Singiswa addressed the memorial but did not, said those present, accept responsibility or apologise in front of the family. Several people present, including actress Nambitha Mpumlwana tweeted angrily.

Some cast and crew said that after the social media outcry they received an email from the production warning them not to break the confidentiality clause in their contracts. Most said they didn’t even have contracts.

A family mourns

Speaking on behalf of the Shwenis, family member and actress Andrea Dondolo told City Press: “The family is still hurt and grieving. We observe mourning for about 40 days. We are waiting with bated breath for the report of the police investigation. It feels as if this could have been avoided. That is what pains the family most.”

Said Shweni’s wife Teboho: “It’s the nights that are a challenge. To feel the sun on my face is an affirmation that I’m soldiering on ... however hard. In my dreams he says, ‘Seek the truth’.”

Actors demand change

The shocking death of actor Odwa Shweni on set in the Drakensberg has opened wounds for the South African film and television industry, with many actors taking to social media to raise their own experiences of a lack of safety – among many other issues – on our sets and to express their outrage.

In particular the South African Guild of Actors (Saga) has taken the lead in demanding that working conditions for actors change. Below the guild’s Adrian Galley and Jack Devnarain, both acclaimed actors, explain why the industry urgently needs change. But first, Shweni’s cousin, award-winning actress Andrea Nomasebe Dondolo, adds her voice to the issue.

Andrea Dondolo’s shocking experience on set

“My personal experience in the industry has been generally good and my motto is to give my best and take what is good but as we know once in a while one does come across some challenges which leave one cringing and questioning people’s professionalism and general set etiquette.

In my case the terrible irony is that this happened recently, to be precise it intersected with hearing about King Cuz Odwa Shweni’s demise.

As a thespian I was working on a project where I had to give voice to a character to reclaim her dignity while mine was being trashed with impunity. We were made to shoot on location with fleas literally crawling up our legs biting us (I caught some and showed the director). In another of my scenes they intended using the dirty linen on the bed in the house we were shooting in. It did not smell good even when I sprayed it with my perfume in an attempt to disguise the smell, which is when I flatly refused to lie on the bed and for close to an hour production had to halt while they sourced clean linen. But nothing would prepare me for what happened next. As the camera was about to roll I was informed that I would be using an actual, real butcher’s knife for a murder scene as they did not have a props knife. Even the props assistant looked sheepish when bringing the knife to me, hiding the blade and only showing the handle. Yhooo! My shock seeing it. The scene is a fast-paced, adrenaline-driven fight scene in a tiny confined shack space where I kill someone. No safety officer on site, no stunt co-ordinator or even a medic, they call, ‘Camera roll!’ and I am like, ‘Hell no, gimme time to figure out how to safely manouvre this.’ Honestly I was s*** scared to use that knife in case of an accident and at the same time aware that already my objection earlier meant a delay and by now it’s night and I don’t want to come across as a diva for refusing again.

Then, while all of this is happening, I learnt of Cuz Odwa’s demise through a messenger call from Liverpool from another cousin who wanted to confirm if it’s true. So while convincing myself that the call did not happen, I have to deal with my own anxiety about accidentally killing a fellow actor. When we were done my fellow actor thanked me profusely for sparing his life as the stabbing action meant that I was inches from his heart. I got back to my room and cried both for King Cuz Odwa’s demise and what I had just been through, a combination of anger and grief.

One can’t paint everyone with the same brush, though, because there are good moments that stand out where crew members went beyond the call of duty and asserted their position. I remember the assistant director saying, ‘We must wrap because production did not give us security and I have to protect my actors and crew, we can't be here a second longer, we abandon the shoot NOW.’ ”

Saga’s statement

The tragic death of Odwa Shweni has turned the spotlight on some of the conditions actors are expected to endure by virtue of their uncertain legal status as freelancers. While the incident highlights specific shortcomings in the Occupational Health and Safety Act (No. 85 of 1993), it gives us pause to examine the broader context within which such an avoidable incident has been allowed to occur. Actors are routinely exploited and exposed to risk because their legal status allows them to fall through widening cracks in the legislative framework. Performers are left completely exposed and are then easily bullied into accepting unfavourable working conditions.

Saga believes that many of these failures can be addressed by extending the scope of statutory protection to include atypical workers and non-standard employees, as defined by the International Labour Organisation. If nothing else, the death of Odwa Shweni should serve to uncover deficiencies in the legislative environments that include labour, health and safety, social security and income tax. Uncertainty regarding their legal status leaves actors vulnerable to exploitation; it denies them access to social benefits and effectively excludes them from the mainstream economy.

Briefly, the Income Tax Act allows actors to claim expenses against their earnings if they are engaged as independent contractors. On the other hand, the Unemployment Insurance Act (No. 63 of 2001) specifically excludes independent contractors from claiming benefits. Certain theatre producers insist on engaging actors on ‘fixed-term employment contracts’, affording them cover under the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (No. 130 of 1993), while saving the producer the cost of appropriate liability insurance. Of course, a fixed-term employment contract then deprives the actor of the right to claim deductions for expenses from taxable income. It also conveniently relieves the ‘employer’ of any statutory obligations in terms of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, Labour Relations Act, Employment Equity Act. Furthermore, it saves the producer money by denying the ‘employee’ the opportunity to access pension/provident fund benefits and also medical aid benefits.

Given the catch-22 situation outlined above, the majority of performers in South Africa live from hand-to mouth; their income is erratic, and they are frequently desperate enough to accept any engagement on offer, despite the conditions attached. They find it difficult to say, “No!” A film producer is legally obliged to ensure that their set provides a safe work environment, but the actor is given no power to say, “No, I don’t feel safe; I will not do it.”

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (No. 85 of 1993) is an otherwise progressive piece of legislation that provides for joint responsibility for safety in the workplace. It sets out stringent rules for ensuring the safety of people at work, providing for workers and their employers to share the responsibility for safety. However, Section 17 of the Act specifies that safety representatives “must be full-time workers who are familiar with the workplace”.

An actor with years of experience under the belt and who is intimately familiar with the onerous hazards of the mobile factory that is a film set, is disqualified from contributing to workplace safety. Section 19 of the Act makes provision for workers to be appointed to safety committees responsible for monitoring hazards and the implementation of protocols. However, the Act provides only for unions to appoint their members to these committees. But labour law precludes freelancers from unionising (which is why Saga is a guild).

From actors to members of the technical crew, to the legions of background artists, a significant proportion of those who work in the film industry in South Africa are freelancers, atypical workers and independent contractors. The promulgation of Act 85 was a progressive step towards defining workplace safety as a shared responsibility. But, as long as actors and other freelancers are denied their right to make a meaningful contribution, they will remain at the mercy of a handful of unscrupulous producers who either pay lip-service to safety regulations or flout them altogether. – Adrian Galley and Jack Devnarain

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