Griekwastad is west of the mining city of Kimberley in the Northern Cape. The small, quiet town is best known for semi-precious stones, sheep farming and a grisly murder that took place in Naauwhoek on Easter Sunday 2012. The incident was initially thought to be a farm attack, but later unravelled into something darker and far more sinister.
The crime drama Griekwastad, now streaming on Showmax, is based on the book The Griekwastad Murders: The Crime that Shook South Africa by hard-news reporter Jacques Steenkamp. Sharing a surname with the family in question must have made it that much more personal for the award-winning journalist, who covered the story from the very beginning.
The case was followed with morbid curiosity
Sadly, family murders or “family suicides” are not uncommon in South Africa, often triggered by a parent’s executive decision, whether to avoid impending tragedy, the prospect of humiliation or financial ruin.
The murders that involve a lone survivor tend to get more media attention as morbid curiosity kicks in and the accused becomes a point of human interest. Executions used to draw a crowd, and the same flicker lures the public into high-profile investigations.
This was all true of the Griekwastad Murders.
A thriller in the hands of a TV pro
An emotive, pacy and gripping account of this true crime story, the book was faithfully adapted by Dis Ek, Anna screenwriter Tertius Kapp. Harnessing the dark energy of Steenkamp’s informative read for his second feature film after Wolwedans in die Skemer is director Jozua Malherbe (who also directed the new drama series Slot, now streaming). Thrillers tend to work well on television, and bringing his considerable TV experience, Malherbe captures the dark mood with a sense of immediacy.
There’s an attempt to diffuse reality, with handheld cameras throwing us headlong into the aftermath of the crime as lead investigator Colonel Dick de Waal arrives on the scene. There are echoes of the LAPD drama End of Watch as the gritty, blood-spattered crime scene gives us glimpses of the atrocity.
Centring on a teenage boy who survived the attack, the investigation whittles down as theories are debunked and he becomes the prime suspect. The process is fascinating as the story’s diamond shape spreads out to encompass possibilities such as a farm attack or satanic ritual.
Stellar casting and a foreboding soundtrack
As witness accounts and evidence stacks up, de Waal and his team begin to sharpen their focus. The unfurling of this grim mystery is driven by the foreboding atmosphere of its pulsating soundtrack, at times industrial enough to have been linked back to alternative band Battery 9.
Arnold Vosloo is one of South Africa’s most seasoned international actors, best known to locals for the drama Forgiveness and his iconic role in The Mummy. Returning home to play Colonel de Waal, Vosloo’s stern and determined performance captures the disbelief and frustration of a father questioning the motives of a suspect his son’s age.
Playing opposite Vosloo is Alex van Dyk, whose haunting turn as a delinquent in The Harvesters made him the perfect choice for Don Steenkamp. Echoing Ezra Miller’s complex, dark and brooding performance in We Need to Talk About Kevin, he presents a carefully balanced and enigmatic supporting performance. In a smaller supporting role, Jane de Wet (Rage, The Girl From St Agnes) steals scenes with her striking blue eyes, immersing herself in Marthella Steenkamp’s tragic and tormented world without flinching.
This trio headline an excellent and sprawling South African cast including Tim Theron, Albert Maritz, Albert Pretorius, Rolanda Marais, Jody Abrahams, Deon Lotz, Ira Blanckenberg and many others. The stellar casting underlines just how important it is to have full-fledged characters at every level in this drama.
Dramatasing a real-life tragedy
With the case having been widely publicised at the time, it’s easy to have been exposed to snippets of the actual outcome, now dramatised in Griekwastad. While the film has been adapted with some dramatic licence, all the building blocks and overriding discoveries from the investigation mirror the book’s informative appeal.
The turning points are documented, and the film’s sense of realism is furthered by interviews with locals, which are anchored by a wealth of acting talent and downplayed by the crime drama’s quick pacing.
Much of the underlying tension and psychological complexity is derived from the main suspect’s age. Observing the Child Justice Act 75 of 2008, the investigation walks a fine line in trying to gather irrefutable circumstantial, physical evidence and reliable testimony. The pursuit of truth becomes an elusive and predatory game, creating a slow-burning feel against haunting flashbacks as a semblance of the truth finally emerges from the shadows.
Griekwastad is a morbid yet effective and chilling mystery crime drama that largely captures the spirit of the book. The allure and fascination of what actually happened is crystallised against more subtle themes around man’s dominion over the world. Dark and brooding, it’s powered by the fascinating true-crime story, a strong cast, a pensive atmosphere, haunting visuals and an unsettling soundtrack.