Spinning around

Spinning around

By Michael Pickard
February 8, 2024


South African series Spinners takes viewers into a relatively unknown corner of motor racing for a story about a young man trying to break away from his gangland past. Writer Benjamin Hoffman, director Jaco Bouwer and star Cantona James reveal more.

It’s a daring South African sport that pushes motor racing to the extreme. Spinning sees cars driven at high speeds while the drivers perform audacious stunts in and out of the vehicle.

It also takes centre stage in a TV drama that goes to the heart of a Cape Town community, following a young man desperate to escape violent gang culture and provide a better life for himself and his brother.

Ethan is a 17-year-old driver working for a local gang, one that is run with an iron fist by Damien. Trying to support his younger brother but increasingly unhappy with constantly living on the edge, he discovers a possible way out via spinning, where he can put his driving skills to use. But a looming gang war jeopardises that dream.

Cantona James and Chelsea Thomas lead the cast, which also includes Brendon Daniels and Dillon Windvogel.

Blending crime drama with sport and a coming-of-age story, the eight-part series comes from co-creators Joachim Landau and Benjamin Hoffman, who conceived the story after discovering the world of spinning.

“I used to work in South Africa and I come from the documentary world, so I always have my ears and eyes open for any story,” Hoffman tells DQ. “In 2017, I was in Cape Town and I was invited by friends I was working with to a spinning event. I had never heard about spinning because in France no one ever heard about it. So of course, I said yes. And what I discovered really blew my mind.”

He describes the spectacle as “fast, noisy and scary to watch, but you cannot take your eyes off it,” he continues. “It was controlled chaos – or not even controlled, total chaos. It really blew my mind and all my senses, like the smell of it, the smoke, everything.”

But after spending time with the spinners themselves, he came to learn that this was more than just a sport for those who choose to climb behind the wheel.

“It was a whole local culture and it would bring the whole community together,” he says. “I was amazed by what I was seeing, so I started to dig into the history and the culture of spinning, and I just found out that there was way more to spinning than the car. You could put a light on a community that people are naturally interested about and show another aspect of Cape Town. A lot of people travel to Cape Town and they never heard of what’s happening outside the city centre. That was the starting point.”

Cantona James plays a teenager trying to escape his gangland life

Coming from a journalism background, Hoffman had considered making a documentary on the subject, but it was Landau that suggested they try to fictionalise the world of spinning.

Landau also produces Spinners with Raphaël Rocher for Empreinte Digitale, while the head writers are Sean Steinberg and Matthew Jankes. The first African series to premiere at French television festival Canneseries, it debuted on streamer Showmax in sub-Saharan Africa and on Canal+ in Africa in November and is set to launch soon on Canal+ in France and Australia’s SBS. Distributor Studiocanal has also sold the drama to Globo in Brazil.

Hoffman began to write up an outline, one that began with a young boy who discovers spinning and determines to use it to break away from the gang he works for.

“That was a really starting point of it, and then we started writing and developing, and then we had amazing script writers who jumped in. Timewise, it was extremely consuming and it took four or five years.”

Of course, a show about spinning also had to have spinning in it. “That was not my concern, that was Jaco’s concern,” Hoffman jokes about director Jaco Bouwer’s toughest task. “Of course, the idea was around spinning, so you have to show it. But there’s a way to film it.”

“There’s a lot of online footage or documentaries. We didn’t want to go down that route but to go a more poetic way, to make it a bit more romantic,” South African filmmaker Bouwer says. “The idea was to have a more cinematic view of that world because that hasn’t been seen. We see people hanging out of the car, but we wanted to see it in a more cinematic style.”

The makers of Spinners uncovered a whole culture around the sport

But having only joined the project two months before shooting was due to begin, the director didn’t have much time to put his plans together. Just to make his task tougher still, “the whole world of spinning is not organised. People go and they just do tricks, and it’s never the same so it was really tough,” Bouwer notes. Another obstacle was the fact that lead actor James, who plays Ethan, wasn’t allowed to perform any of the spins himself. “For me, that was more of a headache because we had to find ways to shoot it but then to have these actors feel and look like they’re driving, which was quite challenging.”

Bouwer shot all six episodes, which were filmed out of continuity and by location. For the spinning, additional cars were used to capture the action, while onboard rigs were also used. Taking Hoffman’s lead, he also sought a documentary style for the series to keep it “quite real.”

“I felt a responsibility to portray a very specific subculture in Cape Town and I wanted to do it with honour and with authentic language,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in the planning to make this as authentic as possible. We shot in real people’s houses and places – nothing is built.”

Auditioning to play Ethan, James was quietly confident he had landed the role when he was called back the very next day to read alongside other actors. He had also admired Bouwer’s previous work and was drawn in by the show’s “romanticised” view of spinning.

“There’s this thing in Cape Town where people don’t like our stories to be told over and over, seeing the bad about our community – but to see the life and the truth in a different way inspired me a lot,” he says. “When I heard Jaco was on the team, I freaked our majorly. We met up, had a 15-minute talk and I was nervous, I thought he might not want me, but then I got the message from my agent and I gave my life to Ethan.”

Taking up his first lead role, James built Ethan’s character on people he knew and others from his own community. He also felt a sense of responsibility to young children he might inspire, while he could also relate to the fact Ethan looks after his baby brother, having cared for his own sister for a number of years.

“I can say Ethan helped me more than I helped Ethan portray the story. But shooting out of continuity was very difficult emotionally,” he admits.

“Ethan has shaped himself as a chameleon, so he opens up to the environment and the energy of people around him; he’s with gangsters, he’s with his brother, then he’s with his friends. He’s different with different people, but there are lines that he won’t cross. He just wants to follow his plan, so I really didn’t even get the feel of being the lead. That’s what I loved about shooting Spinners. I didn’t feel like I’m a lead, I just felt like, ‘I’m here to do what I have to do.’”

Though he didn’t do it for real on camera, James was allowed to take one ride in a spinning car, just so he could experience what it was like and feed that back into his performance as Ethan.

“I had never spinned, so I had one go. It was important for me to do that so then I could experience what this thrill was about – and I was converted,” says James.

“It’s a real experience driving with someone spinning; the sound, it’s all the senses,” Bouwer adds. “He had to experience that, but insurance-wise, he couldn’t drive for real.”

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