David Enright spoke with us about his first documentary since the acclaimed Devilsdorp. Stella Murders investigates the deaths of best friends Sharnelle Hough (17) and Marna Engelbrecht (16) at their hostel at Stella High School in North West.
As a documentarian, does working with material of this nature, becoming familiar with subjects still labouring under the pain of their loss, ever take an emotional toll during production? Do you adopt a journalistic detachment?
When it comes to making any documentary, there’s always a level of uncertainty that goes along with it. Everything is written in water and can change at short notice. This, coupled with the tragic nature of the events, closely working with those affected by these tragic events and the underlying resistance present in this grief-stricken community, did take an emotional toll on me. It is probably one of the most emotional and toughest projects I have ever worked on. However, noticing that the making of this documentary provided an emotional outlet, for those affected by these tragic events, kept me motivated.
On reflection, one realises that it is faint in comparison to what trauma the families and community experienced. It puts it into perspective and serves as a driving force for me to really do justice to the storytelling; handling it with the respect and sensitivity it deserves.
What can a viewer expect from this film, and why should they see it?
In general, documentaries as a medium are a powerful way to give a unique level of insight to the viewer, and the true-crime genre is no different. I think there are various reasons why viewers would want to watch Stella Murders.
As humans, it is difficult for us to live with uncertainty and we would like to make sense of the complicated causes of such a tragedy. A true-crime documentary like Stella Murders can serve an informative function – we may look to gain clarity on a series of events. Knowledge gained allows us to take preventive measures or initiate important conversations that can act social change. It can offer an opportunity to see justice prevail, to play armchair detective, or it can serve as a means to make sense of what happened.
The tragic events that occurred in the small farming town of Stella on 26 May 2018 made headlines and had a far-reaching impact across the country, especially due to the perception of safety that reigns in such a small town. We have also been through a lot as a country recently. This all culminates in the levels of trauma we experience.
So I felt it was necessary to break the mould of the genre a bit in making Stella Murders. It became somewhat of a portrait of grief and community and serves to explore the far-reaching impact of these tragic events. It is my hope that watching Stella Murders among other things, offers a certain level of catharsis for the viewer.
You’ve moved from the longer mini-series format to a compact feature, was there a motivation behind this shift other than the subject you wanted to explore next requiring less time to do so?
It’s important to note that each project is different and that each project has its own requirements.
We had wonderful support from Showmax in allowing us to tell the best possible version of the story without forcing down laborious or unfeasible runtime duration that might inevitably harm the project.
For Stella Murders, it was very important for us to let the content guide our decision-making and establish the parameters. With the support from Showmax and the foresight of the production company, Idea Candy, we were able to go through a thorough research and development phase that aimed to evaluate what content, archive and story threads are available in the telling of this story and in what way we will be able to optimise the viewing experience in regards to pace and rhythm. We established that a stand-alone feature-length documentary was the way to go.
Would you agree that this project has a stronger interest in those affected by the killer, than in the killer themselves? Understanding and unravelling the perpetrator’s motivations and doings seemed to be a more present concern on Devilsdorp?
I think “true crime” has evolved as a genre, in the way that fans find interest in the events, the background and motivation behind criminal acts and those who commit them, but they are also very careful and vocal in not putting the criminals on a pedestal, so to speak. I believe this to be the balance that needs to be maintained in the genre.
Several factors come into play in how one weaves the main story threads. There can be no one-size-fits-all approach. At the heart of documentary-making, for me, is authentic storytelling and the potential to explore the experience of those involved or affected by the events.
Some of the limitations of setting this goal of honest, open and first-hand storytelling are that you can only tell the story that you have access to. Without giving too much away, the nature of the tragic events in Stella Murders, and how the court case played out, provided an opportunity to provide the viewer with the unique and untold emotional insight of those affected. We tried to break the “cookie-cutter” mould when it comes to what may be perceived as the traditional true-crime documentary approach. Instead, we try and explore the impact of those tragic events. We believed this to be the unique and exclusive perspective that Stella Murders provides, as many of the other facts have already been rehashed in the media.
How does research on a project like this begin? Do you speak to potential interviewees first or outline the information at your disposal to begin with?
The goal is always to get as close to each individual’s truth as possible. But the first steps are definitely to familiarise yourself with the facts and to evaluate the amount of archival material available to assist in visual storytelling. There are of course also steps taken in finding leads, because one of the most important aspects in the success of a project like this is spending as much time as you can in conversation with those closely related to the events or case and building their trust. This process helps you evaluate if there is, in fact, any value in telling a story like this. Identifying themes, story threads, and creative approaches runs in parallel to that.
Former Journalist Marizka Coetzer appeared extensively in Devilsdorp, and she’s once again involved to some degree here. Was this a surprise connection for you, discovered along the way to developing the project? Or did Coetzer somehow direct your attention to Hough and Engelbrecht’s story?
We have remained in touch with Marizka Coetzer after Devilsdorp. We were aware that she had, in a professional capacity, a connection with Xander Bylsma’s parents. When Showmax showed interest in this story, Marizka helped us make contact with Xander Bylsma’s mother, which allowed me to have an insightful face-to-face meeting and additional telephone conversations with her and Xander’s father. It was important for me to include their experiences as well, as they had also been through a lot. Unfortunately due to their fear of being lambasted, the Bylsma parents respectively declined to be interviewed on camera. Luckily, Marizka was willing to contribute the unique insight she had obtained in her conversations with the Bylsma parents. Susan Cilliers, author of the book Die Stella Moorde also consulted on this project and was very helpful in allowing us to make the first contact with the Hough and Engelbrecht families.
There are less stylistically unrestrained additives in this programme when compared to Devilsdorp (thinking of the doll submerged in milk, or the giant horned effigy used throughout). Is there a reason you haven’t incorporated as much additionally shot material (including reconstructions of spaces, murder weapons, etc.)?
I prefer to give each project its unique identity. I am creatively guided by the “realm” or “universe” in which the story takes place.
Even in the case of Devilsdorp, I pulled a lot of inspiration from true-to-story elements. The installation art represented themes like duality and perspective and religious manipulation that was present in this artificial universe that Electus Per Deus had created. Even then, every single item used in that installation was taken from the story. My inspiration for the installation art stems from the marionette or “puppet” tattoo on Le Roux Steyn’s neck. The doll dunked in milk, the milk idea taken from the story as well, was an attempt to showcase how ridiculous and over-the-top Cecilia’s manipulation and lies were. All the ideas are inspired by details of the events and in an attempt to provide subtext.
It’s also important for me to let the viewers understand where the story took place, to be able to understand the context and identity of the community and to experience the textures of the landscape and region. So for Stella Murders it was no different. Upon my first arrival on Stella, I experienced one of the most beautiful rich-in-colour sunsets I have ever seen, the beauty of which was in direct contrast to the tragedy that had befallen the town, and to be honest, my own expectations of the region.
It was a poignant reminder that, even when darkness lurks, there is still beauty in the world. It was hopeful. It drove me to try to find out if there is any hope and closure for a community that has experienced such a tragedy. But it was also such an organic and vivid experience. It set the stage for a series of events that continued to draw parallels for me to the emotional and sensitive nature of the story and how important it is to translate that effectively on screen. One of my creative goals, therefore, became to give Stella Murders this “organic”, or rather true-to-life, creative treatment.
There seems to be an original song that plays out the film, and as I understand it, you were involved in its production. Could you attest to that?
Stella Murders has a completely original score. I was keen to work with Sound Surgeon Studios on this one, with the talented Edward George King doing the musical arrangements for us.
Our last (credits) song in Stella Murders, “Haal net asem” is also an original score that was written to carry a message of hope and provide some level of catharsis at the end of the viewing experience. It is a tribute to the families who showed immense courage in sharing their experiences. Hopefully, it resonates with the viewers as well. The musical arrangement was done by Edward George King. We had the honour of the talented singer, Megan Danner, lending her voice to the piece, and I wrote the lyrics to convey a message of hope.
The inspiration for this was a special and profound moment of trust-building during the interview with Riané Engelbrecht, Marna Engelbrecht’s sister. It became a big moment for her, that even though the journey to closure might be long, self-forgiveness provides you with the stamina to continue. It was a truly inspirational moment to witness.
The a capella score at the start and end of the film is a symbolic gesture in giving back the “voices” and dignity to victims, Sharnelle Hough and Marna Engelbrecht. The a capella harmonies were beautifully sung by the artist Orah.
Is there a sequence, or moment from the show, something someone said or that you captured, that you consider most significant?
There can be many reasons one undertakes the making of such a documentary. For me, it is important that it carries some value for the viewer but also for those involved. I think there will be many aspects or moments that the viewers will be able to relate to.
On a personal level, however, there were quite a few prominent moments, one notable one is not on screen, but rather during the production of Stella Murders.
Even though this became one of the most emotionally-tough projects I have ever worked on, a moment early on in production gave me the strength to continue. After what was a very emotional interview with one of the parents of Sharnelle Hough, I received a text from them the next day thanking me, because the process felt like counselling and that they were experiencing a rare bout of laughter and joy the morning after we visited. They had experienced an emotional release from our visit. Moments like these made the process worthwhile and served as an additional driving force in doing this story justice.
It showed me the power of shared experiences. Even though we entered their lives as filmmakers, compassion had a positive effect on their lives.
It became an example of how when we allow ourselves to feel our emotions to the fullest, it lessens the grip they might have on us. Especially when it comes to the pain that grief and anger might harbour. Sometimes you have to scratch open a wound, to allow it to fully heal.