‘Stella Murders’ is the latest documentary that sheds light on heinous crimes that made local and international headlines.
SOME of the country’s gruesome and sometimes even bizarre murders make for gripping and captivating true crime documentaries.
“Stella Murders” is the latest documentary which sheds light on heinous crimes that made local and international headlines.
The documentary investigates the deaths of best friends Sharnelle Hough, 17, and Marna Engelbrecht, 16, at their hostel at Stella High School in the North West.
On Saturday morning, May 26, 2018, Sharnelle was found hanged on the staircase and Marna was discovered in a bathroom. Both deaths initially looked like suicides.
Stella is a small, quiet farming dorpie near Vryburg in the North West with a population of 4,000 people.
“In such a close-knit community, danger is expected to come from the outside,” said clinical psychologist Elmarie Claassens in the documentary. “But the thing about danger is: it doesn’t come exclusively from the outside.”
Over the years the country’s high crime rate has provided subject matter for a growing catalogue of true crime docu-series such as the Safta-winning “Op Seer Se Spoor”, “The Last Blue Ride”, “Devilsdorp” and “My name is Reeva”.
Murder is the ultimate crime and the idea is so far removed from regular people’s consciousness that they struggle to understand what would lead someone to commit murder. This both fascinates and scares them. Add that with a victim’s pain, a culprit’s lack of remorse or a mystery of a ‘whodunnit’ and you have a compelling story.
The documentaries also put the spotlight on the scourge of gender-based violence.
Even President Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking at the second Presidential Summit on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide in November, conceded that “not a day goes by without a story in the newspapers, on television or online about a woman or child that has lost their life or been abused in the most horrendous manner… These horrors defy comprehension”.
Anthony Molyneaux has produced quite a few documentaries including “The Last Blue Ride” which told the story of the Stellenbosch student Hannah Cornelius.
His introduction into doccies was “The Thin Blue Line” by Errol Morris, a 1980 crime documentary. He explained: “The cinematic re-enactments, access to the main subject in jail and the storytelling blew my mind. It was the first time I saw a person who could be innocent and still jailed and then released, thanks to a documentary.”
He further stated that the public at large believes people will tell the truth, the police will do their honest work and the judicial system will find the culprit guilty.
“However, this is rarely the case: people lie, the police can do shady things and the judicial system can be manipulated. This shocks viewers, as they learn about these things for the first time. Forced confessions are a big one for this,” he said.
Molyneaux said that as much as he loves that the crime documentary is a big genre now, it is steering dangerously close to a template “Netflix-style” format that hits all the usual fascinating marks, but leaves the viewer feeling empty, almost like having just watched a Hollywood blockbuster that killed some time, but left nothing behind.
“I prefer documentaries that engage, like really engage, the viewer; informs and leaves them with questions and thoughts afterwards. Perhaps even getting them to do something about the story,” he said.
Are crime documentaries bad for our mental health?
The writer and knife-attack survivor Emma Berquist thinks so.
In a recent Gawker essay, Berquist argued that the true-crime genre makes women paranoid.
“True crime runs on heightened emotion and fear, convincing people, and especially women, that every stranger is a possible murderer,” wrote Berquist.
“I see women questioning whether it’s safe to let a plumber into their house, or instructing others to rip out strands of hair to leave in cabs for DNA evidence in case the driver murders you.
“These are not sensible reactions, they are the thoughts of someone who has been deeply traumatised. So many true crime shows advise women to trust their instincts, but how can we trust instincts that have been hijacked by induced anxiety?” Berquist asked.
Crime expert Gerard Labuschagne said most people have a morbid fascination with crime because a criminal act is one of the “worst things” that can happen to someone.
“Boring crimes aren’t interesting to watch, hence you don’t get a crime documentary about housebreakings, I think it’s the ability to flirt with fear, and the more unusual the case the better.
“I think, as humans we also like to push the boundaries, once you have seen five domestic murders, it’s boring, so you look for a domestic murder that has a different angle, and documentary makers also know that they can’t continue to produce what has been produced before, so to differentiate a particular series there must be a different angle,” he said.