Truth, lies and the ghoulies in the bathwater

WHAT lies beneath. Yola Fischer (Lea Vivier) and her bath which connects to the eponymous dam. (Photograph courtesy

CONVENTIONALLY, YOU MAY think of the horror genre, and the images that pop into your head will derive from western culture: Of vampires and werewolves and centuries-old gothic houses that creak and grumble under old untold tales. But we’re in Africa, and the yarns that unfurl here, can just be as spine-chilling, if not more so, because largely, they’re dealing with horrors that haven’t yet turned into stereotypes. This is demonstrated in the secrets of the Karoo by Martyn Le Roux in his work Die Pelsloper, as it is in Alex Yazbek’s Dam, which presents the mysterious the Eastern Cape, replete with its idiosyncrasies that raise the stakes in the creepiness department.

And this is how we encounter Dam. Yolanda Fischer (Lea Vivier) is a thoughtful young woman with a penchant for stories and a murky history, who comes home from Chile for her father’s funeral. The father, in a cameo role played by Andrew Buckland, offers a presence of madness and violence that overshadows the work from the get-go. And in this quaint place with broekie lace filigree on the shop fronts, very old water pipes and vistas that will knock you sideways, Yola discovers things about herself and her childhood which shock her to her very essence.

They may shock you too. The relationship between Yola and her sister Sienna (Natasha Loring) is portrayed with the depth of focus of one who understands how female siblings get on, or don’t, and as the series unfolds, so do you understand this tenuous, complicated and rich bond between the girls. Sienna is the sister who stayed behind to nurture the plants, look after the parents and court the talent this small sleepy town still has to offer.

Pallance Dladla plays a virile young romantic interest by the name of Themba in the piece, replete with a Harley Davidson. But he’s as much a part of the sinister underpinnings and puzzling together of pieces as Yola, and the romance is thwarted by damage – of a historical, emotional, physical nature. In short, this is no easy love story, but one complicated by magic and ritual, by weird customs that can only be contained in the bosom of a small town off the beaten track of any metropolis, and by unhonoured dead.

It’s a solid tale, which with a couple of fantastic potential red herrings, gives voice and presence to magnificent characters such as the hippie plumber Bernoldus (Neil Sandilands), the mysterious broken girl, Clara (Tarryn Wyngaard) and the powerful iconic Lindiwe who is a psychiatric nurse with a mystical wound (Faniswa Yisa), to name but a few. In this regard, the work offers a rich understanding of small town mystery and how the spooky element can be intertwined in it.

Having said all of that, Dam doesn’t present strong cliff hangers, however, and in many respects, feels too long. Divided into eight episodes, it brings together references that take you from the depth of old tales of rape, sanitised by the sanctity of history, to a monster lurking in the bath; from a hole in the ceiling a la Mark Behr’s The Smell of Apples, to a sinister parade involving the head of a barbel.

The story is tied up cleanly and is punctuated by moments of unspeakable beauty and strangeness but also horrendous violence and grubby sexual manoeuvres. While the credibility stakes are not always at their peak, particularly in terms of consistency, which compromise the scream-out-loud moments, this portrait of madness in the Eastern Cape is a compelling one.

Cinematographically, the work does tend to be quite precious and oft reliant on stereotypes of ghost town footage, where a dustball – or piece of paper – blows in the wind against the backdrop of sheer, one-point-perspective unpopulated silence. The soundtrack, however, is the glue that holds you. It’s creepy and unobtrusive, flowing beautifully in tandem with the tale as it unfolds, and adding the same kind of vigour as Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The sound is the thing that leaves the hair on the back of your neck standing on end, rather than the visuals or the surprises.

In many respects, Dam tries too hard. Like Jerome Pikwane’s Tokoloshe of 2018, it brings out the whole toolbox of weirdness, and there’s too much that it wants to say, some of which scuppers the main thrust of an otherwise compelling tale of loss and memory, honour and horror.

  • Dam is written and directed by Alex Yazbek and features a cast headed by Marvin-Lee Beukes, Anthony Patrick Bezuidenhout, Andrew Buckland, Francis Chouler, Gabriella Cirillo, Wane Cockroft, Pallance Dladla, Sivenathi Gazi, Avuzwa Gqamane, Melissa Haiden, David James, Laudo Liebenberg, Natasha Loring, Antoinette Louw, Cumani Maneli, Thembisa Mdoda, Dineo Moeketsi, Matli Mohapeloa, Sivuyile Ngesi, Sithi Nqabeni, Andre Odendaal, Isabella Ann Pringle, Scott Pringle, Lindsay Reardon, Neil Sandilands, Rika Sennett, Jennifer Steyn, Gerald Steyn, Amor Tredoux, Rowen van Aarde, Charl van Schalkwyk, Lea Vivier, Tarryn Wyngaard, Faniswa Yisa and Olwam Zote. Produced by Gary King, it features creative input by Brendan Jury (music), James Adey and Tom Marais (cinematography), Miriam Arndt and Melissa Parry (editing), Gabriella Cirillo (casting), Sue Steele (production design) and Barbara Brasington (costumes). It is available on ShowMax.  

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