Swartwater – TV Drama

After experiencing an unspeakable tragedy, a young suburban couple move to the small coastal town of Swartwater. They soon become embroiled with the local population and their intrigue and realize that all is not as it seems.

Swartwater was shot over six months in Arniston, a picturesque fishing village in the Western Cape, with additional filming in Johannesburg.

Produced by Quizzical Pictures, Swartwater was jointly directed by John Trengove, Jozua Malherbe and Denny Y Miller.

In the series, married couple Francois (Louw Venter) and Karen (Jana Strydom) go through the tragic experience of losing their only child and move to Swartwater to get away from everything. While living there, they both find their place in the community, which leads to revelations about their (and others’) deepest secrets, scandals, loves and much more.

Swartwater also stars, among others, Dirk Stoltz, Viljé Maritz, Rika Sennett, Louis van Niekerk, Annie Malan and Noluthando Meje.

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ScreenAfrica Article about the collaboration between the three directors

South African directors John Trengove, Jozua Malherbe and Denny Y Miller each bring their unique strengths and skills as they collaborate on SABC2’s new television series, Swartwater (Black Water). Predominantly shot in Arniston in the Western Cape with additional filming in Johannesburg, the three filmmakers draw on each other’s expertise to make creative decisions.

“It is the first time the SABC has commissioned a series of this nature,” says producer Bianca Isaac of Quizzical Pictures in Johannesburg. “Swartwater is very different from the other Afrikaans dramas that have been made. The performances are amazing, the cast is fantastic and the locations showcase South Africa.

“During the five-week shoot in Arniston, the team battled rain, hail and gale-force winds, which was ideal for the story, but difficult in which to shoot. However, these obstacles were easy to overcome with a fantastic crew and an experienced director,” adds Isaac.

A snake in Eden

In the series, married couple Francois (Louw Venter) and Karen (Jana Strydom) go through the tragic experience of losing their only child and move to Swartwater, a tiny town, to get away from everything. While living there, they both find their place in the community, which leads to revelations about their (and others’) deepest secrets, scandals, loves and further experiences.

Writer Hélène Truter and her husband Percy moved from Johannesburg to a small coastal town a few years ago. “Like the leading characters in the series we have met quirky, real people. But small towns like Swartwater have secrets and factions: paradise isn’t always what it seems. There is always a snake in Eden,” comments Truter.

She says the characters are ordinary people who are faced with an unbearable situation. “Life is about the choices you make when faced with tragedy. It’s how the characters react to the event, not just the event itself which will keep viewers enthralled.”

Truter remarks: “Even when I’m creating a flawed person or a villain I have empathy for the character. I have come to love all the characters in this series and hopefully the viewers will become as attached to them as I have and have strong feelings towards them – negative or positive. Mediocrity is the bane of my existence and I certainly hope that Swartwater will be more than the average TV series.

“I am a strong believer in cliff hangers and hope that viewers will be taken by surprise every week and return for more.”

Compositional storytelling

Director John Trengove (Hopeville), who braved the stormy conditions in Arniston with gusto, says he and the crew steered away from a ‘soapie’ feel, both in the casting as well as the art direction of the series.

“We ended up with a wonderful ensemble of highly skilled actors that has given the show a very unique and integrated identity. For the production, we referenced a lot of Scandinavian cinema, as well as a fantastic series called The Bridge,” says Trengove.

“The approach was to do away with tricky camera moves and editing, and to strive for stripped-down compositional storytelling, quite similar to the process of stills photography. We shot a lot of scenes in a single master, relying on blocking and timing of the actors to keep the scenes dynamic. It was a very stimulating way to work and it really kept us on our toes,” the director remarks.

Controlling the colour palette

In order to give the series a distinct and atmospheric look, Trengove and his team decided to really control the colour palette on set rather than relying too heavily on the grade, which is usually the case.

He remarks: “The colours of Swartwater are the colours of Arniston: blues, greens, greys and earth tones with no primary or bright colours anywhere in shot. It was a challenge for the wardrobe and art department to sustain this strategy through an entire series, but one that we hope will pay off in the end.

Director Jozua Malherbe (Donkerland, Getroud met Rugby, Wolwedans in die Skemer) is handling part of the shoot in Johannesburg. “We are shooting on the Sony C100 – it is a small and light camera which works for our ‘no fuss’ camera kit.

“In other words we are moving a lot and want to keep it light and simple. The camera also has a smaller chip than say the Canon 5D which helps with focus and we are using the Zeiss Distagon and Zeiss Planar lenses which are small and relatively fast (1.4 & 2). And we stick to a specific lens range, namely (25 28 35 50 85),” he says.

Natural ambience

Comments Malherbe: “So far we have been shooting for three weeks indoors in Johannesburg. Our lighting kit is mostly made up of LED panels and two1.2HMIs. Considering these restrictions we are using natural ambience for a base light design and then sculpting the actors for specific shots.

“This year I completed Donkerland which is an epic in genre. Swartwater is a much more contemporary show not only in theme but also in time and place. The difference for me lies a lot in the tone of the show. Where Donkerland has big thematic lines Swartwater is more contained, focusing on a beat-by-beat narrative.”
Malherbe mentions that the shooting style is very straightforward. “Sticking to very simple, elegant framing and camera movement has made it simpler to execute in difficult situations. Having said that, to keep this style has been a challenge on its own.

“Being able to collaborate with John Trengove has been a real pleasure. His ideas and choices are very fresh. He has a great way in which he uses the camera to tell the story. I have done my best to use his design to inform my blocking and camera design.”

Malherbe says he enjoys finally working with actor Louw Venter. “We have known each other for years so it has been great to get this opportunity. We are working with a wonderful range of actors and the leads, Louw and Jana Strydom, are both very sensitive actors. They bring an incredibly warm and vulnerable feeling to the characters they play.

“Dirk Stoltz is the villain and with his charisma and big smile he proves that the underground world is not always dingy and predictable,” concludes Malherbe.
Pesto Post Productions in Johannesburg is in charge of the edit.

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