Movie Review: Stella Murders

Stella Murders comes from the documentarian behind the SAFTA award-winning Devilsdorp, a provocative series that covered a spate of killings known as The Appointment Murders and Satanic Murders in Krugersdorp. David Enright’s latest documentary is delivered in the format of a feature film, an investigation into the tragic deaths of teenage best friends that rocked the 4,000 strong dorpie of Stella, near Vryburg in the North West.

An otherwise peaceful town where everyone knows you better than you know yourself, this incident shook locals to the core, disrupting their sense of safety and community spirit with an unthinkable act of violence. At first deemed to be suicide by police officers, a private detective’s incisive actions and valuable intel led the investigation straight to a primary suspect after clues pointed to an outsider.

As a true crime documentary, Stella Murders is fairly straightforward, detailing what eventually turned into an open-and-shut case. Giving deeper focus to the crime scene and preliminary steps, the film delves into the nuances of the crime from the community’s perspective. Stella Murders isn’t after pot-stirring or sensation, reading the room to offer a respectful chronicle of events, grounded by a series of deeply emotional, honest and sincere interviewees.

Having already lived through the ordeal and its aftermath, it must have been tough for Sharnelle’s parents and Marna’s father, mother and sister to rehash the worst days of their lives. Yet, to their credit they’re able to weigh in on the circumstances surrounding the tragedy, opening themselves up to share their raw memories and candid thoughts. The documentary also captures insightful commentary from Devilsdorp journalist, Marizka Coetzer, clinical psychologist, Elmarie Claassens, as well as police officers Captain Zagaries Human, Captain Markus Ferreira and private eye, Chris Saunders.

Stella Police Station

“…danger is expected to come from the outside.”

While it features suspenseful music, this documentary steers away from shock value in its attempt to get clarity in what becomes a strangely cathartic experience. A character portrait of the teenage victims, Sharnelle Hough (17) and Marna Engelbrecht (16), the ripple effect is far-reaching in its heartbreak with their purity positioned as the real lasting legacy for Stella and its tight-knit community.

While several key interviews with the accused and the alleged could have added more dimension, the documentary gives the victims a voice through the friends and family they leave behind. Stella Murders could have taken a step back to offer more context from the perspective of South Africa’s violent culture but chooses to focus on this 2018 double murder as an isolated tragedy. Perhaps this decision was taken with a view to not wanting to broach a much bigger overarching discussion, which could be the subject of its own documentary. Then, a late twist to the saga seems a bit contrived based on not really following through and using excerpts earlier in the documentary.

While it has its flaws, Stella Murders is still a compelling and gut-wrenching film, emotionally taut in its discovery and thorough in its slow-burn investigation. A vivid and sleek film that unpacks the story behind the cold-blooded murders with an uncommon sensitivity, it’s enriched by its heartfelt undertone and noble aspirations.

The bottom line: Heartbreaking