Set in the foreboding sugar cane fields of KwaZulu-Natal, Fremantle-M-Net crime thriller “Reyka” – starring South African born Kim Engelbrecht, whose credits include “Isidingo,” “Dominion” and “The Flash,” and Iain Glen, Ser Jorah Mormont in “Games of Thrones” – looks set to mark another milestone in both Fremantle and premium South Africa TV production.
For M-Net, following on “Trackers,” co-produced with HBO and ZDF, “Reyka” marks an early push into large-scale premium international co-production pairing local and international talent as M-Net parent Multichoice, led by Yolisa Phahle, sees some significant success in facing off with Netflix.
Chosen by Variety as one of the 10 buzziest shows hitting MipTV, typically for a Fremantle drama, “Reyka” tackles big ideas from a progressive feminist stance: the durability of past trauma, for instance, which gains special resonance in South Africa.
But it wraps them, again typically for Fremantle, in an engrossing thriller format, centering on Reyka Gama – played by Engelbrecht – a brilliant but damaged criminal profiler. Gama seeks to bring to justice a serial killer rampant in KwaZulu-Natal, who attacks and asphyxiates his women victims, leaving their dead and burned bodies among the sugar canes.
By several accounts, the killer first approaches and charms his victims, persuading them to take a walk in the plantations. To capture him, Reyka turns to the most seductive psychopath she’s ever known: Angus Speelman, a farmer of large culture who abducted her at the age of 12, an experience from which she has never recovered. Glen plays Speelman.
Nordic Noir detectives usually battle inner demons. Shot in ultra close-up, with Engelbrecht delivering a full-on performance, few, however, are as haunted as Reyka. That, and the series’ settings – the dark green sugar cane fields wavering in a slightly sinister fashion in the wind; the dirt-poor rural village-ships; and the manifestations of new organized crime – lend a singularity to the crime drama, which is created and written by screenwriter Rohan Dickson (“Husk”). “Reyka” is produced by the U.K.’s Serena Cullen Prods. and Emmy-nominated Quizzical Pictures in South Africa.
As “Reyka” tracks for a July debut on M-Net, Variety talked to Engelbrecht about the series, which moves the dial on South African scripted series.
In an early present-day scene from episode one, Reyka is seen sitting in a cane field as it thunders rain. Her eyes are lost to the present as she remember the past and then grimaces, as if she realizes that she must but can’t move on. From the get-go, there’s a huge ambiguity and contradiction about your character’s feelings for Speelman….
Engelbrecht: That’s the wonderful thing about this character. People say that once you’ve experienced extreme trauma, your emotional growth gets stunted. That’s happened with Reyka. When she was 12, in 1994, her mother, a political journalist, is standing in a queue to vote for a brand new president, and Reyka gets abducted for four years. The day of South Africa’s freedom, Reyka’s freedom is taken away. Back with her family – there’s an idea of the sanctity of the family, that in the family you’re supposed to feel safe – she feels she doesn’t belong.
There are parallels, and differences, with the evolution of South Africa…
Engelbrecht: Reyka’s of mixed race, she has a complete feeling of being displaced. In a time of healing, she has absolutely no healing. She’s trying to form herself as a woman, as an adult, but she’s stopped being able to emotionally mature, and has a strange affinity to the person that abducted her.
There’s also a certain parallel between what Speelman did to her and what the killer is doing to his victims, charming and trapping them.
Engelbrecht: Reyka’s obsessed, not only with Speelman, but with his psyche. She’s charmed by him, and addicted, and in love, which makes her feel absolutely ashamed. But she can’t stop herself from going to see him. It’s the one place where she feels she can be herself.
For South Africa, what’s new about “Reyka”? In what ways does it push the envelope?
Engelbrecht: South Africa is very much known for its wonderful soaps. That’s the background I come from. What’s beautiful and sobering about South African soaps is that they do touch on the realities of South Africa. What’s new about “Reyka” is that it’s a procedural, a cop drama, with complicated characters and investigations; and the murders and what happens to Reyka is brutal.
“Reyka’s” directors, Zee Ntuli (“Hard to Get”) and Catharine Cooke (“The Girl From St Agnes”), appear from the little I’ve seen to shoot the series with a lot of close-ups, especially of you or from your viewpoint. “Reyka” is your story as felt by you. The series does, however, cut away to establishing shots of the beautiful countryside by day or the slightly sinister cane fields at night. Did you shoot all the series on location?
Yes, all on location. It’s one of those beautiful locations that makes South Africa seem extremely tropical with its features and beautiful cane fields, which seem quite mystical actually, as if they have a life of their own.
Do you sense that South African TV, and especially its scripted series, are evolving very, very quickly?
Yes, it’s a really great time for South Africa to be in the spotlight. But it’s important for stories about South Africa to be told in an African way. That style still has to be defined but the more we make the more we’ll know what it is. And the more we make, the more the confidence of a whole industry, including directors and actors, will grow.