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Durbanite Talks Politics in the new Showmax Series: The Girl From St Agnes

The girls from South Africa in The girl from St Agnes

If you haven’t yet watched The Girl from St Agnes from start to finish, then what have you been doing this past week?

Showmax released this 8-part murder mystery series on 30 January and it easily broke the record for the most unique viewers in 24 hours – proving its binge-worthiness and showing how ready the world is for South African English TV. I for one, have been ready for years, and so instead of being actively social last friday night, I stayed at home with my mother and we started and unintentionally finished the entire show.  

My overtaxed mother may have been falling asleep on the couch during the opening credits but soon she was resurrected by the shocking plot twists and many of what the TV ad describes as ‘admissions of guilt’. Set at an all-girls’ boarding school in the KZN midlands, schoolgirl Lexi Summerveld (Jane de Wet) falls to her death and the case is dismissed as suicide. But drama teacher Kate Bellard (Nina Milner) remains unconvinced and furthers the investigation herself, exposing secrets, lifting veils and ultimately showing that the school and all who attend are not what she (and we) once thought. Transfixing and professional, I was blown away by this show and my poor friends will vouch for how it’s all I’ve been talking about lately.

girl from st agnes

Having lived in California this past year, I was ready to give up on launching a career in my own beautiful country. But TGFSA has truly restored my hope in South African film and media and more specifically, the hope for our female writers, producers and directors. The team that created, filmed and funded the show is an all-female collaboration which is rare, even for Hollywood. Not only are the writers, directors and producers all women, but the story focuses more on the lives and struggles of the South African female experience too. It’s the men and the schoolboys who are villainous and destructive while the girls are the victims who bear the brunt of their perverted or unfaithful husbands, abusive boyfriends, neglective fathers, or disappointing sons.

The notorious “boys will be boys” line is referenced at least twice, hinting at its persistent circulation in patriarchal South Africa. But even as each suspect (and there are many) that Kate suspects is a male, each also becomes a red herring, making the victim, the murderer and the detective an all-female game too. Perhaps what this is saying is that we women need to work together and support each other more. And perhaps we need to be more courageous, less trustful and dependent, and own our individual narratives just like S.A. men have the learned confidence to do.

girl from st agnes

What I also really enjoyed is the political landscape that the show doesn’t choose to ignore. Lines like “you people”, “colonialists”, and allusions to farm burning, land stealing and robberies pinpoint the present South African experience and highlight the racial tension that is still very much alive today; even amongst the integrated and somewhat progressive schoolgirls at St Agnes. This exposes the backlash and the influence our parents’ generation still has on us, however the small progress we’ve made so far is also shown by the (albeit few) mixed friendships and relationships, peace treaties and apologies, as well as a well-mixed cast even if *sigh* the main characters are still mostly white.

girl from st agnes

I guess The Girl from St Agnes should be regarded as a snapshot of present progression and should not be expected to transcend all boundaries at once – as we still have a long way to go – but rather we should choose to focus on the pride of making it this far in South African English television and in non-conservative material at that. Sure, it’s at first unsettling to hear our accent on the screen, and maybe even more so when it’s talking rape and murder and suicide (and and and). But after a while it hits that this is our reality. We are no longer watching the far-fetched American world with its foreign accent, but instead we are consuming our own unique demeanor and personally relatable experiences. As an ex-all girls’ catholic school girl myself, I feel united in my own story and no longer feel the ‘fomo’ of American High School as intensely as I used to.

I’m so excited for the future of South African TV and I hope I get the chance to join in someday, too. And you, fellow unenthused and disillusioned writer/actor/director/any form of creative… you should be too.

Written by Candice Buckle