Telling empowering stories, South Africans want to hear

Sunday, 09 April 2023 12:33

Gail Mabalane shines as an unexpected murderer in the local crime thriller Unseen.

By Leandra Engelbrecht.

Picture: Instagram.

Zenzi Mwale hides behind her identity as an unremarkable cleaning lady while desperately searching for her husband after he is released from prison.

I've always wondered how seemingly 'normal' people get involved in criminal activities. How circumstances drive them to commit acts out of their character, and with each act, they get deeper into the underbelly of society. Netflix's latest African Original Unseen explores one such story.

The six-part crime thriller is an adaptation of a Netflix Turkish series Fatma, created by Özgür Önurme. Gambit Films has put its uniquely South African spin on it. The series follows Zenzi (Gail Mabalane), who has been waiting for her husband, Max (Vuyo Dabula), to be released after serving a two-year sentence. While Max was in prison, Zenzi supported herself through domestic work.

When Zenzi goes to pick Max up from prison, she discovers he has already been discharged. She then goes in search of Max, first to the police to report him missing, where she is met with xenophobia and incompetence. She then embarks on her own investigation going to places Max would frequent and then to one of Max's associates Hendricks (Brendon Daniels), where Zenzi has a weekly cleaning job. It's clear that Hendricks is involved in criminal activity; when Zenzi asks him if he has any idea where Max is, Hendricks is surprised to learn that Max has been released and tells Zenzi they need to find him because there is a lot of unfinished business. At Hendrick's office, Zenzi steals a gun from his safe. Zenzi then sets off to meet Hendrick's former partner Jackson Thom (Sherman Pharo), who has no information about Max; he threatens her and launches to attack her; Zenzi then shoots him. From there, things start spiralling out of control for Zenzi. As she gets deeper into the criminal underworld, her body count increases, and she ends up on the run from the police and the criminals.

While the storytelling is quite formulaic in the crime thriller genre, it is even paced and drips with tension. Whenever Zenzi found herself in a precarious situation, I held my breath. What worked to the series' advantage is that the character Zenzi wasn't your 'usual' killer. I wanted to see how Zenzi would either get herself into more trouble or somehow try to get out of it as she navigates this dark world she finds herself in. Some things in the plot seem a bit far-fetched, but this is, after all, television, and to enjoy the show, you would have to suspend your disbelief.

In her first outing as leading lady Gail Mabalane turns out an authentic, raw, nuanced performance. Great care was put into developing the character of Zenzi; to buy into the story, you have to be rooting for Zenzi. Mabalane tapped into all the layers of the character, the wife, mother, sister, and a woman 'unseen' by society. What stood out about her performance is that Zenzi didn't suddenly turn into a master calculated criminal, which could have been easy to do. For example, she still walks around in a jacket that could identify her as the killer of one of the murders. Killing doesn't become a norm for her. Each time she kills, she throws up; she is plagued by her conscious and very aware that what she is doing is wrong. Mabalane said: "To bring this character to life was a journey that I needed to go on. What's been incredible about playing Zenzi is that it allowed me to go emotionally where I've never been before as an actor."

The rest of the cast comprises well-known South African actors, including Ilse Klink, Dineo Langa, Rapulana Seiphemo, Colin Moss, and Waldemar Schultz, who perform well in their respective roles.

The show explores societal themes, one of which is the invisibility of cleaners/domestic workers. In one scene, a character reflects that while helpers know everything about our lives, we don't know anything about them. The series asks viewers to confront how we view people doing these jobs. It also highlights the holes in our criminal justice system; for example, in the series, the police are unable to solve the deaths of innocent people, but when criminals start dying, they go all out to investigate. There's a poignant scene where Zenzi poses this question to one of the investigating officers. I found myself wrestling with this, these people don't add anything to society, and surely, we're better off without them; however, morally, it's wrong, and every death deserves justice.

Unseen is a thrilling ride driven by an outstanding performance by Gail Mabalane. If you like crime thrillers with an unlikely serial killer, you should add this to your watchlist. It's a great local production that can stand tall on the global platform.