There are stories that stay with you forever. For Chwayitisa Futshane, producer and executive producer of M-Net’s new crime docuseries, Strangers You Know, working on the show will have a lasting impact on her life. She means that quite literally as she holds up her right forearm to display the tattoo she received during filming to be used for shots in the first episode. The stories she encountered and explored while compiling the eight episodes that make up Strangers You Know will stay with her too.
With so many stories that need telling, Futshane had a tantamount task ahead of her when it came to selecting eight. Helping her whittle down the list was the focus of the series: women who lost their lives at the hands of men they knew. Sadly, there are many stories like this, and we’ve seen them told time and again, which is why Futshane wanted to help craft Strangers You Know from an angle not often taken.
“What did I want to do differently?...I wanted a person that was part of the investigation; whether it’s a first responder, whether it’s paramedics, whether it’s the actual investigators or the guy that takes over the case later on. I wanted those guys. The guys that can tell me the nitty-gritty of the case.” It’s an intimate attention to detail that reached not only into the nitty-gritty elements of the cases but the heart of the story, as investigators involved in the various cases as well as family and friends were woven into the narrative.
It was also important for Futshane, who speaks with both eloquence and passion about the series, to ground the stories in the realities of courtroom procedure. “If you sat through the Oscar Pistorius trial, which was one of the first times South Africa really dug into doing a trial channel in this country, you realise how pedestrian it all is…But it’s stuff that we need to know.” Conveying the tedium of procedures gives us a glimpse into the frustration and anguish families and friends experienced in their tireless search for answers and for justice, a search that is never easy nor quick.
In episode 2, this becomes clear as the dogged determination of Palesa Madiba’s brother, Thabiso Tsoledi, leads him on a search for his missing sister that takes years. It’s perhaps a mark of how enduring hope can be, that despite knowing the outcomes to many of these stories, we hold out that somehow the ending will be different.
Some of the more cynical may find hope naïve or we may lose it all over again when the fatal end of these women’s lives are unveiled. To counter such bleak feelings Strangers You Know strives to offer a sense of catharsis. “I was looking for cases where there were convictions,” Futshane says, “because if you’re going to be telling stories that are this dark, you need a light at the end of the tunnel.” Furthermore, if she wanted access to the police and investigators she needed to wait for cases to be closed. “From a SAPS or an NPA side: their prosecutors and their officers really don’t talk to the media while a case is ongoing, so that was another reason why I was looking for those convicted cases: because I wanted access.”
With stories focusing on men who have killed a woman, or women, they knew, the conversation veers to the ever-present subject of gender-based violence, which the second episode touches on in its opening scenes. “The thread was there,” Futshane says, reflecting on the episodes, “…but I also wanted to shake it up a bit, because gender-based violence is not one thing.”
The complexities become evident as the series progresses, as well as in the stories Futshane sifted through and selected. “You also want to reflect the socio-economic differences…that when you’re watching the series in its totality you can see that the show isn’t saying to you only a certain kind of man is capable of murder. It’s saying to you: this is unthinkable for all of us and the reality is that it really could happen to any of us.”
When it came to choosing stories and humanising such harrowing moments, family was key for Futshane. “A lot of the cases that we were looking to do we ended up not doing just because we found we didn’t have family buy-in and that made it so incredibly difficult because you want to have the families represented. You want the families to be the ones that tell you about the person that they loved. But also you want them to tell you about the impact of the loss.”
By weaving together the various facets – from the process and procedure of police, prosecutors, and investigators; insight delivered by experts, and the emotional impact conveyed by family and friends – Strangers You Know provides an all-encompassing perspective. “With Palesa Madiba’s episode,” Futshane reflects, “I think that’s really where, for me, we really hit the mark.” It’s clear the case had an impact on Futshane and was a story that stayed with her, especially having met the Madibas and having been in court during the sentencing of Dumisani Mkhwanazi. “That entire episode is really just heart…it’s a beautiful episode to watch because it really is about the family and what they’ve gone through in the time that they were looking for her and then in the time after she was found when they really wanted the perpetrator to be imprisoned.”
These are not stories to step away from lightly nor are they stories that are new or unfamiliar. While delving into the lessons she takes from producing the series, Futshane remarks that key to many of the cases is how quickly the families reacted and stressing that there is no waiting period to reporting a missing person. “If your gut is telling you something’s not right, respond to your gut…because we’re in a climate right now that doesn’t allow us to sit back and think: it couldn’t happen to me.”
Episode 1 chronicles Anisha and Joey van Niekerk’s story. Catch up on the episode with DStv here.
Episode 2 follows Palesa Madiba’s story. Catch up on the episode with DStv here.
Strangers You Know airs every Sunday at 20:00 on M-Net channel 101.