The new neo-noir murder mystery series shows a side of Cape Town that has been kept in the shadows for too long, writes Helen Herimbi.
When Pretoria-based Ilse Klink was a teenager, she would spend some school holidays in Cape Town. One of her favourite places to frequent was Club Galaxy – a nightclub with a reputation that preceded it.
So popular and beloved is the space that it has become an institution in the Mother City’s nightlife and an inspiration for a pivotal space in Showmax’s new drama, Skemerdans.
Called The Oasis, the club, which takes its moody atmosphere and iconic image from Galaxy, feels like it, too, is a star of the series, which you’ll be able to binge on from Wednesday.
Human stars include Klink, Kevin Smith, Carmen Maarman, Brendon Daniels, Trudy van Rooy, Vinette Ebrahim and the late Ceagan Arendse.
“That place is an institution,” Klink says about Galaxy.
“Unless you were a child of the church and weren’t allowed to go clubbing, you would’ve gone to the Galaxy. I didn’t go a lot because I was already living in Pretoria when I discovered that club.
“So I went there when I was back in Cape Town on holiday. It was fabulous and I loved it. It’s got such a reputation.”
Not nearly as eyebrow-raising a reputation as that of the Fortune family, who own The Oasis. Glenn Fortune (played by Smith) is the head of the family, the club and, it seems, the neighbourhood.
Smith, like Klink, has been in the acting industry for decades. In fact, before he was on screen on Isidingo, he was one of Klink’s directors on that soapie.
In Skemerdans, business is no longer booming at The Oasis and Glenn’s wife, Shireen (played by Klink) is one half of a respected power couple, but she is at her wits end with his blind optimism.
Oh, and their errant nephew is intent on blowing up everything the family has worked hard to achieve over the past few decades.
“The show is about the underworld, the darkness, the things we try to hide,” Klink shares. “It’s about when things are shiny on the surface but all the danger, insecurities and sadness lie underneath that. That’s a huge theme. For my character, her whole world is dark.
“There are so many harsh things that happen to her and she has to surrender something that’s very important to her. She has to deal with a family she thought was on her side but is backtracking despite knowing who she is,” she says.
“She’s now on unstable ground and we get to see her internalised sadness play out. The show deals with the things we try to hide.”
The cinematography mirrors these themes. There’s a glossy beauty to scenes that reveal and conceal, using natural light.
The dark club is contrasted by Smith’s white suit, the humorous banter between the bar staff and an unshakeable feeling that something more than human beings lurk in the shadows.
This is just one of the reasons you have to actually watch the drama-at-every-turn series and not say you’re watching while scrolling on your phone.
It’s the kind of series that demands your full attention, not only because of the neo-noir visual style, but also because you’ll have to rely on subtitles if you don’t understand Afrikaans.
Even today, it’s rare for a series with a notable visual aesthetic to not only centre on coloured people but to give them the space to talk naturally, without an implied pursuit of portraying a rainbow nation by playing the scenes predominantly in English.
Sometimes it seems there are only two options for telling stories that feature coloured people – the gangsterism trope or the giddy silliness of some soapies.
But it’s clear in the first episode of Skemerdans that the foundation of the Fortune story is one of family, trust (and lack thereof), business and a tricky past, which is also rare. So, Skemerdans is a welcome break from the harmful stereotypes.
Klink says: “Cape coloured stories on TV are always about people on the breadline, fighting for survival. Trying to just get by.
“But there are thousands of us who don’t live like that. I think it was very, very, very important to see coloured people in a different light. It was time.
“It was also time to see a coloured story shot so exquisitely! The angles, the costumes, the make-up, the lighting – everything is shot with beauty and affluence and kindness and love in mind.
“I think a lot of us coloured people are at a point in our lives where we do want to see the nice things that do happen for coloured people. I can’t speak for them, but I think that’s a big focus for Amy [Jephta] and Ephraim [Gordon, the creators of the series]. Their previous film, Barakat, also didn’t have anything to do with gangsterism or anything like that,” she adds.
Although it’s set in Cape Town, there aren’t many tell-tale signs that you’re in a tourist utopia.
“Because it’s taken years for our stories to be told, I feel like there is a birth of our storytelling in its truth and essence right now,” the veteran actress says.
“It’s just our story and it’s long overdue. Coloured culture is very different in various parts of the country and I feel there’s a gross lack of the coloured stories in Johannesburg. What is beautiful about Skemerdans is that there is no reference to the sea or the mountains.
“That’s important because many people think that’s all there is to Cape Town. But a lot of people don’t live near the sea. This is shot in Bellville, on an iconic street in the Voortrekker Road strip. That’s important.”
Skemerdans is the kind of show that forces the viewer to be present when watching it.
Hopefully, it will also inspire the decision-makers at various traditional broadcasters and streaming services to pay production houses fairly so they can bring to life the many differing stories of the people who seem to have been forgotten.