DAM director Alex Yazbek (The Wild, Unmarried, Isibaya) has conjured up a world of barbel-headed monsters and a trypophobia-inducing skin disorder, to tell a universal story using South Africa's very particular and dynamic lens.
Shot on location in a small Eastern Cape town, the series – out today on Showmax – bristles with anticipation through the use of jarring music in the manner of striking violent violin strings. Ominous voices and heightened natural sound build a cacophony of expectation and impending doom in the first scene of the pilot episode. We are in psychological thriller and horror mode here.
"It's safe to say you've never seen anything like DAM on South African TV," says Candice Fangueiro, Showmax's head of content. Led by Lea Vivier (Wonderlus) and Pallance Dladla (Shadow), the spooky world of DAM requires restraint in terms of performance, as most of the production relies heavily on sounds and the ever-pervasive sense of doom that lurks around the corner.
In the eight-part series, Vivier stars as Yolanda Fischer, who returns from Chile to the Eastern Cape to bury her father, only to be tormented by spirits in the farm house she has inherited. But with her mother institutionalised and her own meds running out, Yola has to wonder if the spirits are real or just in her head?
As Yola occupies her father's house alone, she is haunted by dreams and slight disturbances that disrupt her core mental faculties. Vivier's performance is measured with an exceptional balance between fragility and assuredness.
"I was drawn to how complex she was," Vivier says.
"She is well travelled and confident but on the other end of the spectrum she is on meds and looks as if she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She is also proactive but never hides her vulnerabilities in the same breath. My role was to make sure that this comes out in the performance."
Many elements in the production hinge on Vivier's performance and the cinematography, much of which functions on the same level as that of a character. There is a story to be told by what the camera reveals and withholds. Vivier is required to be alone in some parts and as a result, she needs to carry a scene and maintain a state of fear and uncertainty. A lot of preparation goes into such a performance.
"I had to do a lot of preparation for this role and I even kept a diary for her."
"I went deeply into her backstory and mapped out her journey in my mind, because the portrayal of her nerves was an integral part of her story. In fact, it's an emotional through-line that runs through the story. Acting is the art of reacting – so I loved being challenged by this dark material that works on your psyche. It was very important not to delve deeply into the dark side as an actor. Luckily I had strong support structures that would bring me back to the light."
"'Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances'," Vivier recalls this important quote from Sanford Meisner, an acting coach who came up with the Meisner technique.
She is a well-regarded thespian who poured herself into her role diligently with enough range to execute the requirements of a psychological thriller. At times she went in too deep and needed therapy sessions in order to come back into the light.
"DAM is the story of a family – and a town – with dark secrets, and about how what you push down will eventually rise up," says four-time SAFTA winner Yazbek.
- DAM is now streaming on Showmax