Andrew Worsdale  takes a peek at the production of “Happy Day” – an innovative pilot for a children’s sitcom series that was developed and created in Ekangala Township and is being touted as South Africa’s unique home-grown “High School Musical”.

 

jan-hapy
Happy Days in Ekangala
The small township of Ekangala, about 89kms from central Joburg north-west of Pretoria, has just been the host of a television pilot that has seen the locals not only have a taste of showbiz but also see their community upgraded.

 

Three years ago the community theatre group ‘Teleios Korban’ (“complete empowerment”) from Ekangala was visited by a Dutch film crew, making a series of reports about vulnerable children living in ‘child-headed’ families.

The purpose of the series was to address the need for help by telling the kids’ own stories. In the end it helped raise funds for the Dutch NGO organization Kids Rights for their projects in the region, as a result almost 1,000 orphans are now supported with food, medical aid and first care by St. Josephs Care Centre at Sizanani in Bronkhorstspruit.

After Dutch filmmaker Dennis Brussaard’s short film “Sipho’s Dream” was nominated for the Golden Award at the international documentary festival of al-Jazeera in Qatar last year the director was inspired to return to the township for a more ambitious and more wide-ranging project.
Brussaard says, “I was touched by the talent and power of the children of the theatre group 'Teleios Korban' (TKO). So I promised to come back.” When he returned he worked together with the children and TKO’s creative director Isidore Martins Duruji and made the feature film “What Shall We Expect Tomorrow” an adaptation of a theatre piece devised by the group about ‘child-headed’ families.

After the big success of ‘What Shall We Expect Tomorrow?’ and “Sipho’s Dream” the director and his associates are taking their idea one step further and are developing a musical comedy series for television called “Happy Day”. For the production of the TV series, South African children from age 8 to 16 have written the script, developed the characters, composed the songs and collaborated together to project the underlying message of hope.

Like most of the kids in the area the youth featured in the series have lost their parents due to HIV/AIDS and are growing up without adult support and guidance. In the pilot episode they move to their poor granny, who lives in a tiny little shack which they try to make ‘home’. Every day, this group of young kids is confronted with intense dilemmas but the show isn’t filled with tales of poverty and despair. Although it deals with ugly realities like aids, drug abuse and child-reared families it is resolutely upbeat in its message – a positive vibe that was completely echoed in the production of the series’ pilot episode last month.

Brussaard says, “The question was not IF we wanted to do a follow up, but WHEN and HOW. We wanted to create a production that could be broadcast worldwide and could generate an income for the local people. But above all, our wish was to involve children from the townships and young Africans to give them a platform to show their talents. And that’s how the musical comedy series started to develop.”

On their website the filmmakers state that their objective is to “show young children that you can approach your problems with humour and laughter. The series will tell the stories about South African kids in an inspiring and entertaining way…European children will learn more about their peers in South Africa, about their way of living and how they deal with issues like: poverty, discrimination and the dangers surrounding them, such as drug abuse, dropping out of school, and sexual abuse.”

For the pilot episode they conducted screen tests among more than one hundred children in and around Ekangala. When the series is up and running they plan to invite children from other townships in and around Gauteng to take part. The kids were all involved in the development of the script, during special workshops they developed their ideas into different story lines and subjects and then a professional team of writers and directors (including Brussaard and South African Brandon Oelofse) help integrate these ideas into the series.

The children are obviously inspired by watching foreign television but executive producer Gudo van Niekerk says, “the mix between their authentic African way of living and their interpretation of ideas from overseas makes for a unique combination. We compare the series with Disney’s “High School Musical”, although the idea of Happy Day was developed long before the hit family movie and its sequel were released.”

More than 30 kids from the townships Ekangala and Rethabiseng are involved as cast members and 25 young filmmakers from AFDA’s Film School in Johannesburg are working as crew on the show. The pilot episode is a totally independent production of ContentDivision in the Netherlands in cooperation with the AFDA, Telios Korban and St Joseph’s Care Centre. Only charity organisation ‘KidsRights’ is involved as a Dutch partner.

With the pilot episode the producers hope to attract a local broadcaster as a partner; Dutch broadcasters will also probably come on board but only for about 5% of the production costs.

Many of the children had never been exposed to film making and television production and the pilot episode sought not only to teach them the skills necessary for the single episode but also provide them with skills that they could carry through with them into other non-traditional channels such as dance and music.

Many other elements of the production used local talent and expertise from music recording and production to vocal coaching, choreography, set-building and even local catering and craft services such as “T and T's Chicken” and “Mama Gracie's Kitchen”. Throughout the creation of the pilot the crew stayed in Sizinani Village, a NGO development scheme helping create jobs and skills in the hotel and service industries.

The Happy Day Project aims to create content for people by people. They say, “In the creation of new entertainment content we aim to develop the skills of disadvantaged areas who have not been exposed to television and media production. Involving wide spectrum development in creating jobs, skills and talent in underdeveloped or disadvantaged communities.”

The show intends to focus on showcasing and developing new talent
from its very own target audience. The series will eventually take place over a three-month program and will be run in coordination with local high schools as an after school activity. Learners from Grade 4 through 12 are able to take part as an extra mural activity which will run for 4 hours once a week per area with a master program on Saturday Mornings for 6 hours which will include the entire cast. Lunch and transportation will be provided for all.

Dennis Brussaard is excited about the prospects of the series and the enterprising dynamism that cast and crewmembers have brought to the venture, “Programs about children in developing countries could be better presented by these children themselves instead of talking about them all the time. Let them tell their stories by themselves and not always via adults!”

In a few months’ time South Africans might well have their own mega-hit ‘High School Musical’ and a new collection of television superstars whose dreams will have come true.