The proliferation of true-crime docuseries has turned a country that has over the decades become desensitised to crime, into an emotionally invested audience.
As such, more and more stories on headline-grabbing offences are being made for TV.
“Boetie Boer: Inside the Mind of a Monster” on Showmax is the latest offering from the genre and, while it is not a widely known case, it is one that is no less spine-chilling.
Directed by Jasyn Howes, who is also a respected cinematographer in the industry, the 5-part series uncovers Stewart Wilken’s (aka Boetie Boer) killing spree in the 1990s, with South Africa ushering a new era of democracy.
Howes said: “I always have been interested in the genre of serial killers, since back in the 90s, as a youngster, watching documentaries and a lot of films as well that featured the subject matter.
“I thought that it was very interesting and so, about 7 years ago, I started doing some independent research, looking into South African serial murders and where we ranked.
“It was surprising to note that, at that point, we were second in the world for the number of serial killers per capita. I did not know that, and as I dug further, I came across Wilken’s story, and it stuck out for me.
“So many elements of the story are interesting, including the character, where he came from, the society he came from, and the community he was living in. The fact that he had two victim types, and the fact that not many people knew about his story.
“I had never heard of him, and anyone I asked had not heard of him either.”
Howes admitted going down the rabbit hole after that.
“It took me down many different avenues and, at one point, I nearly made a short film about some elements of the story, which never came to fruition.
“But then, about 2019, I was working with another female director I know. I was a cinematographer, and I was working with her on a documentary piece, and we got to talking and it appeared we had a synergy there.”
That interaction led to them contacting Dr Gérard Labuschagne, the former section head of the Investigative Psychology Section of the South African Police Services, who, in meeting, revealed that he had interviewed Stewart Wilken in 2006, and had recorded it.
“He provided me with that for research purposes only at that stage,” Howes said.
When MultiChoice put out a call for a true-crime series, Howes realised that the timing to tell the story was perfect, as was the platform it would be shown on.
Once he got the green light for the project, he headed to Port Elizabeth, now Gqeberha, for the groundwork.
“I always knew that what I wanted to do was somewhat of a hybrid creative approach, where we would blend together documentary and narrative to bring the story to life. And there are reasons I chose that route,” he shared.
“There was a lack of video archives that these documentaries rely heavily upon. We never had that. We needed to think smartly about how we could communicate the events of the past, but in an interesting way.”
As such, they cast actors to help re-enact some of the narratives, and spliced those scenes with commentary from the media, the community, and those officially involved in the case.
And the headlines that ran at the time were woven into the series, too.
Of course, a crucial component of this series was having the serial killer tell his side of the story. During the investigation ahead of his incarceration, it was discovered that Wilken targeted homeless boys and sex workers of all races.
He also admitted to acts of necrophilia and cannibalism with his victims.
Howes added: “I really wanted to interview him. I knew that he wanted to tell his story. I connected with a pastor I found via one of his family members. A pastor he was working closely with in prison.
“This pastor functioned as a sort of intermediary between me and him for a time, and she revealed that he wanted to share his story.
“Obviously this is gold from a storytelling perspective. Unfortunately, the correctional services would not give us permission to do so. So I went to meet him to extract as much information as I could extract, but also to gain his permission to use the recording that I had.”
He said the person he met was an ageing white Afrikaans man with no teeth. He was wearing glasses to read as he had diabetes, and one of his arms was not in good shape. Howes said he was a shadow of his former self, but he still had a very piercing gaze.
“My position in telling the story was to lay it all out. Telling his story, his past, and having his voice as well. Giving him an opportunity to speak in the only way we could - through the recording. But also giving other stakeholders a voice, whether it was from a legal standpoint, the police, or members of the community,” Howes explained.
The polarised views certainly paint a picture, but Howes wanted to present the facts as he had learnt them, leaving no stone unturned, and allowing viewers to make up their own mind about this lesser-known South African serial killer.
Howes added: “I think the important thing to focus on here is nothing is black or white. No one is born a murderer, which is why I took such a psychological angle in telling the story.
“It attempts to understand the mentality, but it does not excuse it.
“In telling the story, I took the position of, I know what you have done, I know that it is all wrong. I am going to give as many people an opportunity to speak on this point, and at the end of the day, individuals can make up their own mind.”
Howes pointed out that although they were limited by the voices that chose to speak, they “were able to secure a piece of archived video that the police had which has not been seen by the broader public.
“The last time it was shown was in the court case of February 1998”. It will be shown in episode 5.
∎ “Boetie Boer: Inside the Mind of a Monster” is streaming on Showmax.