An authentic, homemade African take on superhero genre
Jongo - an authentic, homemade African take on superhero genre. (Image: Motion Storytory)

He can run like lightning, jump over trucks and punch through walls. He's also authentically African, a hip-hop dance master, a man we can all relate to - and a Jozi boy born and bred.

Africa's first mainstream TV superhero will be hitting South African screens in March, with the producers promising "something quite different" from standard superhero fare - and a hero "that the continent as a whole can look up to".

Set and filmed almost entirely in Johannesburg, Jongo tells the story of Eli King, a young man who acquires supernatural abilities after finding an alien crystal in a cave at the Cradle of Humankind.

Eli's power-giving crystal (and others he soon discovers have fallen into the wrong hands) are the only supernatural element in what Gareth Crocker, Jongo's writer and co-director, describes as a human story, with effects that are physical rather than computer-generated, and used sparingly to enhance rather than dominate the show.

"My criticism of the superhero genre per se is that a lot of the stuff looks exaggerated and fake, and we wanted this stuff to look authentic, we wanted to produce something that people can really connect to," Crocker says in a behind-the-scenes video released last year.

Casting an African superhero

Casting of the hero was obviously key to the success of this approach, and in newcomer Pacou Mutombo, Crocker is confident that they've struck gold. He himself first spotted Mutombo, quite by accident, at one of his daughter's dance recitals, where guest performer Mutombo was introduced as "one of the world's top hip-hop dancers".

Hip-hop master, role model
Pacou Mutombo/Eli King - hip-hop master, role model. (Image: Motion Story)

Crocker was instantly captivated by Mutombo's voice, charisma - and unique physicality.

"It's one thing to watch a small person dance, in a small frame, to move around and be quite graceful," he says. "It's quite another thing when a really, really big guy has complete control of his body. And it's such an advantage for us, because we can use his actual physicality as an effect in the show.

"You know, sometimes he'll do something, and if you watch it, it looks for sure that we've gone and actually manipulated the footage."

Creating a dynamic look and feel

Mutombo's athleticism synched perfectly with the strategy of creating a dynamic look and feel for Jongo, based on movement both of cameras and of characters doing real things - dancing, boxing, fighting hand-to-hand - in real environments. Jongo was filmed almost entirely in Johannesburg, in locations ranging from tops of buildings to basements and from theatres to tattoo parlours.

"If you think the clip of Ziff [one the bad guys] getting a tattoo is real, well that's because it is," says Crocker.

To enhance the effect of this, to the point of creating an immersive experience for the viewer, the crew filmed using state-of-the-art equipment, including drones, tri-axis gimbal stabilisers and "some of the best low-light cameras in the world".

Shot on location in Johannesburg
Shot on location in Johannesburg - with the technology needed to take full advantage of the city's spectacular settings. (Image: Motion Story)

There's a strong storyline underlying the action, with supporting characters that include Eli's best friend Kay (Katlego Baaitse), his girlfriend Maya (Pauline Zwane), Noah (Luthuli Dlamini of Scandal fame) the head of an agency that protects the planet from alien activity - and, on the "dark" side, the super-villain Benjamin Abaddon (Bartho van Tonder), his enforcer Ziff and his sadistic half-sister

Jongo was produced by Joburg-based film and TV studio Motion Story, with local company Discover Digital handling African distribution and Amsterdam-based distributor FCCE covering the international market.

Discover Digital's Stephen Watson, speaking to Screen Africa during the 2015 Discop African film and TV market in Johannesburg, described Jongo as "an original and uniquely African concept that has excellent production values".

Fred Wolmarans co-directed the series with Crocker, with Nick Keulemans handling cinematography, Phillip Wolmarans as producer and local venture capitalist Chris Lawrance as the executive producer.

The first eight-episode season is due to air on e.tv and EbonyLife TV in March.

Source: staff reporter

Contact the Gauteng Film Commission