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Isibaya's long goodbye

We are unlikely to see a telenovela that was as groundbreaking in its use of visuals and cinematography to tell a story as powerfully as Isibaya did for a decade
Thu, Apr 01, 2021

PHOTOS: Bomb Productions


People Are Living There – this is the title of what I think is Athol Fugard's most underrated play, but it's also what I think about as I pass through the heart of rural KwaZulu-Natal on a monthly basis as I make the long commute home. I've spent years up and down different parts of this province as a reporter covering maskandi and crime.

It's these places that I'm thinking about as I come to terms with the weight of the end of Isibaya.

In the past several weeks following the announcement that the show would be coming to an end, social media has been rife with posts about the end of the show. Fans bemoaning its demise and members of the cast sharing memories of life on set. It feels like one long very public funeral – what Raymond Chandler calls the long goodbye.

What hasn't been spoken about much is how after Isibaya we are unlikely to see a telenovela quite as groundbreaking in its use of visuals and cinematography as tools for storytelling.

The framing of television by design is master, close-up and reaction. The medium focuses on coverage more than anything else but through the luminous lighting that glides off black skin, Isibaya's Zeno Petersen, Teboho Mahlatsi, Phiwe Mkhwanazi, King Shaft, Adze Ugah and Ryan Lotter have for the past decade been able to create a subtle visual language of their own that both sings and singes off the screen.

Isibaya provided a much-needed antidote from the glossy images of hysterical realism that had become the norm on our screens the decade prior and it offered something that is believable, but also imaginative. The show made images of communities forgotten and languishing in obscurity urgent in the context of South African history.

Isibaya's visual oeuvre is at its best in group shots – as depicted in a last-supper-esque night scene at the Zungu house which was punctuated with a lamp in the middle that seemed to magically half-light everyone in the room. Those images disrupt the passive formalism of the medium to offer up something which makes the eyes wonder, want to pause, take it all in and speculate at all the little dramas unfolding in the frame.

The visual language of Isibaya is also accomplished at showing hierarchy and gradual shifts in power often over an episode but at times even within a single scene.

Although lauded for its inventive action sequences, at its best the show is a study in the ticking time-bomb of domestic tension. Some of the most powerful moments in the series have nothing to do with imikhovu (zombies) or izinkabi (assassins) doing the bidding of their taxi-owner masters.

The prevailing moments come from Thandeka standing up to Mkabayi and telling her she'd rather die than not marry Sibusiso; MaDlamini and Mpiyakhe in the car quietly going over the rubble of their collapsed marriage; and Jabu in his living room shattered by his grief for Zama.

Isibaya's influence looms large over a number of shows that followed it. The themes of living as an assassin explored in eHostela; the harrowing mysticism if Igazi; intersections of royal and peasant life on The Throne and Isikizi; as well as the family feuds on a hellish landscape seen on The Herd would not be possible without Isibaya as a blueprint for what is possible in the telenovela format.

When we think of beauty and how it relates to life in the countryside land of Isibaya – mountains, lakes, and rolling green vistas shot via drone border on the pornographic. This is the norm.

While Isibaya set itself apart in its use of exteriors, many of the show's most beautiful moments take place indoors. Away from the light, in quiet whispers. The show always looks inward to portray the power and the beauty of even the most fringe of characters.

Incidentally, some of the most beautifully realised scenes on the show are also some of the most ordinary – such as a gossip session between MaDlamini and MaMthembu as they peel vegetables, or Mpiyakhe catching up with his daughter at the dinner table.

This kind of attention to nuance and punctuating the beauty of the mundane is part of the power of Isibaya and something which we all will hopefully carry with us long after the final credits roll and the screen fades to black.

  • Catch the final episode of Isibaya on Mzansi Magic (DStv 161) on 2 April at 8.30pm. Previous seasons and episodes are available to stream on Showmax