Sooner or later

Sooner or later

February 7, 2024


The past confronts the present in South African crime drama Soon Comes Night. Executive producer Stan Joseph, writer Paul Rowlston and distribution exec Rodrigo Herrera Ibarguengoytia reveal the background to the series and why its story resonates today.

Stan Joseph

Set against the background of 1990s South Africa, a six-part drama depicts the country’s emergence from apartheid through the battle between two men with something to prove.

Soon Comes Night pitches a liberation hero-turned-heist king and a broken cop seeking redemption together in a gritty crime drama that is based on real events.

Kwenzo Ngcobo stars as fictional freedom fighter Alex Shabane, who returns to South Africa and turns to crime when the promised ‘spoils of war’ fail to materialise. When his brazen cash heists and subsequent redistribution of loot embarrass the new government, detective Sakkie Oosthuizen (Albert Pretorius), a former apartheid cop, is appointed to find and arrest him.

But while the charismatic Shabane endeavours to carve out his empire in audacious defiance of the law, Oosthuizen is a broken man, struggling with his health, grief and a dysfunctional police force. As their lives collide, these very different men reflect the complexity of the old and new South Africa, where a painful past with dark secrets is pitted against the hope and expectation that freedom promised. But also, a place where freedom is never really free.

Written by Paul S Rowlston and directed by Thabang Moleya and Sanele Zulu, the series is produced by Ochre Moving Pictures for Netflix (Africa) and SABC (South Africa Broadcasting Corporation). Distribution is handled by Red Arrow Studios International.

Following its local launch, the series will be screened at the Berlin International Film Festival as part of the Berlinale Series Market Selects showcase this month.

Speaking at Content London 2023, Ochre CEO Stan Joseph, writer Rowlston and Red Arrow’s Rodrigo Herrera Ibarguengoytia revealed the origins of the project and why its period story still resonates today.

Albert Pretorius plays apartheid-era cop Sakkie Oosthuizen

Soon Comes Night emerged from Ochre’s ambitions to evolve beyond being a service producer in South Africa, with plans to build and invest in original projects that could reach audiences beyond the country’s own viewers.

Stan Joseph, CEO of Ochre: We began a writers development programme with Media Xchange and out of six [ideas], this is one that came through. We were very privileged; we took the risk to spend the time investing in it. We got a very modest interest from SABC but Rodrigo took the first step and saw it as a universal story of an everyday Robin Hood guy up against the system. It was inspired by the true story of an activist who went on to become this larger-than-life heist gang [leader], but he did it because he was disappointed and disillusioned by what he fought the war for. With Red Arrow’s interest, that also gave Netflix the reassurance and then they came in for African rights. That’s how we put it together.

Paul Rowlston

Writer Rowlston was drawn in by the “compelling” story idea and the complex dynamics of the central pairing.

Rowlston: To me, it was always a compellingly simple top line: a former freedom fighter turns cash-in-transit robber. We all love an anti-hero. Robin Hood is a consistent story among most cultures, but what made this interesting for me was the person they set to catch our character was a former apartheid policeman, someone who was a holdover from the previous government now working with the ANC government and is being set to catch this man by the people who trained him, one of his former comrades.

Now we have this antagonist and protagonist, whose past defined their future and neither of them were looking at a satisfying future. Because Ochre was developing its own IP, we had the luxury of a long development process – the best part of five years from initial pitch to writing and at least two years of multiple drafts reimagining and rewriting.

The series doesn’t just focus on Shabane and Oosthuizen, however. The creative team also sought to introduce a third character that would add further complexity to the central relationships.

Soon Comes Night follows a freedom fighter who resorts to crime

Rowlston: Where we started with two men and this compelling idea, into this we inserted the character of Thato (Didintle Khunou), born free, a woman coming of age in the new South Africa. She represents the hope for the future, the newly emerging South Africa, but her past is linked to these two men and she is as defined by the past as they are.

It has all the aspects of a genre piece: it’s a heist show, a cop procedural in places, a thriller in places. But actually, because we had so long to play with it, it became a character piece, a piece about people. It’s hard to decide who the antagonist and protagonists are, because ultimately the system is the enemy. The world they find themselves in, the shadow underneath the rainbow nation is the protagonist.

Rodrigo Herrera Ibarguengoytia

It was the period setting of Soon Comes Night that particularly attracted investment from Red Arrow Studios International, believing the themes of the series would also resonate with an international audience.

Rodrigo Herrera Ibarguengoytia, VP scripted acquisitions and coproductions, Red Arrow Studios International: I was immediately drawn to the complex dynamics of the time and how it was shifting at this pivotal time in history. The approach was of it being a character-driven show; not trying to tackle overarching politics but instead focusing on these characters and how they’re navigating these shifting dynamics. That’s what I think helps it resonate widely.

Early in the process, it happened to be around the time of many protests in the US and around the world following the death of George Floyd and it was sparking a debate that in many ways mirrored issues in the series. It became really apparent how topical the series can be.

The great thing in terms of international appeal of a series like this is it has a very commercial vehicle. At its core it’s a heist thriller, with all the elements you would come to expect, then it’s also set in a very distinctive time and place, infused with local elements that add so much texture and complexity. But that straightforward engine makes it very broad and accessible to international audiences.

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