donkerbos 2022

It’s quiet here. Dead quiet.

When the bodies of six children are discovered in the Donkerbos backwater forests, an outcast detective must confront her dark past, her family, and a distrustful community in order to catch the killer before another child is taken.

Nico Scheepers (Nêrens, Noord-Kaap) wrote and directed the Limpopo-set Afrikaans-English-Venda murder mystery, which is produced by Nagvlug Films (2022 SAFTA winner Nêrens, Noord-Kaap, 2022 SAFTA nominee Skemerdans, and 2022 Oscar entry Barakat).

Erica Wessels (Dwaalster and I am ALL GIRLS) stars as detective Stephanie ‘Fanie’ van Wyk. “We had six fantastic options, but everyone else approached the character with rage,” Nico says. “Erica adds empathy. She added so much depth to the character that I couldn’t believe it.”

Sanda Shandu (Skemerdans, The Kissing Booth) plays detective Tsedza Tshivenga, her new partner, who is brought in from Johannesburg by Captain Didie Baleka to assist on the high-profile case. “He’s ideal for making Fanie walk on eggshells,” Nico says. “You never know what he’s thinking because his eyes are magnets.”

Early reactions to the eight-part series have been overwhelmingly positive. “Donkerbos is gripping and will haunt you long after the credits have started rolling,” says Marteli Brewis of Sarie. It tells the story of a serial killer who preys on innocent children, the detective tasked with solving the case while dealing with her own demons, and everyone affected by the murders in a beautifully dark, horrific way. South Africans will identify with this all-too-familiar masterpiece.”

Donkerbos is a “cinematic masterpiece,” according to Elri Boucher of TVPlus. “It will keep viewers on the edge of their seats and shock them with twists, turns, and red herrings,” she adds. It’s a dark story with real truths that can be difficult to swallow at times, but it’s one of the best Afrikaans series we’ve ever had.”

Donkerbos is described as “innovative and dazzling” by Leon van Nierop in Rapport.

Nêrens, Noord-Kaap, Scheepers’ breakthrough series, won Best Editing at the 2022 SAFTAs and received five-star reviews, with News24 calling it “a triumphant showcase of the best that local TV has to offer.”

Scheepers wanted to bring the crime and mystery genres closer to home in his eagerly anticipated sequel. “I’m a huge fan,” he says, citing influences ranging from Mare of Easttown to Broadchurch to Nordic noir and Asian thrillers. He believes the genre forces us to confront “the harshest of truths – that we will all die one day,” but it also gives us hope that there are “still brave people standing between us and the darkness.”

The genre is uncomfortably close to the bone in South Africa. “South African statistics are worse than anything I could write,” Nico says. Perhaps this is why South African crime shows are gaining international traction, with Reyka receiving an International Emmy nomination earlier this year after selling to 147 territories, including BritBox North America, CANAL+, Channel4 in the UK, HBO LatAm, and Sky Italia.

Nico grew up on a farm in Limpopo and wanted to see and hear his childhood home on film. “Limpopo is under-represented on South African television,” he says. “I was tired of hearing only Zulu and Xhosa in Afrikaans series, and I was tired of hearing only coastal and Karoo stories in everything else.”

Enter Donkerbos, a fictional Limpopo town with dense forests and multilingual residents who switch between Afrikaans, English, and Venda as needed.

To help create empathy, he’s assembled a star-studded cast that includes Silwerskermfees winners Jacques Bessenger (Fynskrif, Warrior), Stian Bam (The Story of Racheltjie de Beer), Aphiwe Sithole (Poppie Nongena), Carel Nel (Gaia), and Rolanda Marais (Trackers), multi-award winners Wilhelm van der Walt (Fynskrif) and Leandie Du Randt (Meisies Wat Fluit), Fleur du Cap winner Nicole Holm (Fynskrif), SAFTA nominee Nicola Hanekom (Faan se Trein) and 2022 Young Artist Academy Award winner Caleb Payne (Good Life), as well as Silwerskermfees Best Actor nominee Edwin van der Walt (Wonderlus) and newcomers Steph van der Merwe and Marko Vorster.

Donkerbos is a whodunnit as well as a whydunnit. “I kept asking myself, ‘Can a person do horrible things and still deserve your compassion?'”

This is a cast you’ll care about until, and possibly even after, you discover one of them is a murderer. “After seeing their auditions, I started writing extra scenes for them,” Nico says. “These actors simply force you to sit up and pay attention.”

Donkerbos, according to Nico, is “a story about how almost everyone fails society’s most vulnerable members – children – but there is hope in the men and women who keep fighting, despite the odds.”

Donkerbos is both “the best thing I’ve ever read in Afrikaans” and “the darkest thing I’ve ever done,” according to Erica.

Donkerbos is now available on Showmax, with new episodes released every Tuesday until January 17, 2023.