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Local story ticks the right boxes

A South African show that meets US communications professor Paolo Sigismondi’s successful streaming service criteria of appealing to local audiences and having international potential, yet remaining authentic in its portrayal of its country is Sober Companion, showing on Netflix.

The dark comedy created by Trevor Gumbi  and Tiffany Barbuzano is set in Johannesburg and centres on drug addiction and rehabilitation. This is a universal subject given a distinctive South African flavour and is familiar but without the stereotypes and clichés — unless they are pointed out as such. 

The show was made by SABC3 in 2016 but Barbuzano says that when they offered it to Netflix, it was snapped up.

Netflix is “the Holy Grail at the moment”, she says, because “they treat the TV and filmmaking process as it should be. You know, you don’t have to ask your dad to sing a song or your mom to hold the boom.”

South African broadcasters do not always have the budgets to commission shows to an international standard in English so local film companies have to attempt to do so “with our hands tied behind our backs”. 

Broadcasters tend to rely on co-productions such as the upcoming Reyka or franchises such as The Bachelor or The Voice, which are sure to attract audiences and advertising. Producing a quirky show that you would see on the “fringe in Grahamstown [National Arts Festival]” is a lot more risky.

“So, I’m quite proud of SABC3 for letting us make Sober Companion. They were willing to take that risk,” says Barbuzano, adding that South Africa is an untapped market for the likes of Netflix and its ample funding.

“We have a huge amount of stories to tell, in a unique way. How to Ruin Christmas, a show my husband directed, went straight to number one in a number of countries.”

Barbuzano says that although it is not a particularly original story — a girl goes home and messes up a family wedding — the “local flair” made viewers gravitate towards it: “The colours, the music, the interaction of characters are all recognisable to us but not to those in other countries.”

Barbuzano is looking forward to submitting pitches for the recently announced R28-million partnership between the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and Netflix, which will see six South African feature films being made and premiered on the streaming service.

“It makes us, as an industry, all excited to get going again. It is like the Golden Fleece for us, having all been trying really hard, for a really long time to take things international.”

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Leizl Eykelhof
Leizl Eykelhof is a subeditor at the Mail & Guardian

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