A few weeks before JIVA!, the fifth Netflix African Original series is set to hit screens, I’m fortunate enough to have, not a sneak peek, but a full front row seat, at the epicness that is this South African dance drama. The story centers around talented street dancer, Ntombi from Umlazi, Durban, who must confront her fears and deal with family objections to pursue her dancing dreams.
36 minutes into the first episode, I’ve already begun cementing relationships with the characters. By this point, I know who exactly I’m rooting for, who I cannot-for-the-life-of-me stand (no spoilers, I promise) and who I hope each character ends up with, marriage and babies in tow. This series isn’t a lazy binge; it’s the kind that keeps you on your toes, ready to hit ‘Next Episode’ just as the cliffhanger from the current one drops.
If you’re anything like me, immediately after enjoying a good series or film, you want to know all about the real people behind the characters – and, thankfully, I’ve been given interview access to JIVA!‘s entire cast and crew – which is great because a quick Google search doesn’t always do a good job of quenching my thirst. A few days later, I’m sat – virtually – with the lead character, Noxolo Dlamini, and we’re chatting away like friends, 1) because she turns out to be one of the easiest people in the world to have a conversation with, and 2) because I’m fishing for a lot of background info about the soon-to-be hit series.
“Overall, it was an amazing experience for myself, as an artist, and personally,” she reveals, right off the bat. Naturally, taking on this physically exerting role came with its challenges, but Noxolo knew what she signed up for. “I was literally shooting every day. There were days when, even though I needed to be rehearsing for my solos and group pieces, I still needed to make time for everything [else] and trying not to get too tired.”
Although the breakout TV star doesn’t have a background in street dancing (but rather, in ballet, contemporary and physical theatre), she put in the time and work that was required to bring Ntombi to life – a woman she describes as a “strong female,” a role she’s very much familiar with.
“What’s beautiful about Ntombi is, there’s so much vulnerability in her, and she’s fighting, but not from a place of power. That’s what’s so beautiful; we get the sense that she’s fighting internally, with herself, with her family and her mother, and just really trying to understand where she needs to be in her life.”
Filming in the middle of a pandemic had challenges neither Noxolo, nor the rest of the cast and crew, could ever have prepared for, but as an actor and creative, she felt the immense support of the industry giant behind this production. “Ever since I started working with Netflix, I’ve been feeling like I’ve been taken care of, like an egg. I feel like there’s a family and I feel like I’m a part of it, which is really beautiful. It feels good to be part of something so massive.”
She also believes that having the backing of an international platform will give more African creatives the motivation needed to tell the stories they really want to tell – knowing their voices will be amplified. “I think what Netflix is bringing is [a sense of] wanting to be better as artists and creatives. Now, we’re given a platform where it’s like, we want to hear from you. Give us you! What is Africa? What is South Africa? And I think this is our moment.”
Her colleague on the project, Zamani Mbatha, who plays a key role in the Netflix series, can identify with this feeling, opening up about his desire to see greater opportunities internationally for African talent like himself. “We’re so creative, we’re rooted, and I feel like we need to push ourselves more to go farther.” Zamani, who made his debut appearance on screen in 2017, also recognises that the international industry and audience need to realise what African filmmakers can give, as well, not just take. “We have a lot that’s beautiful about our everything – our culture, our traditions, everything. And we have very dope creatives and a beautiful mindset. I just feel like we deserve [more], but we can’t only say we deserve it, we’re going to have to work until we get there. [The world] already knows who we are, we just need to be louder.”
Touching on the response – on and offline – to the series announcement, the actor testifies to the genuine buzz surrounding this project. “People are excited, and you can even see from the trailers that it’s a beautiful project. It’s a different style of filmmaking and it’s a unique project, not something we’re used to.”
I’ve had a fantastic opportunity to feel the pulse of the actors, but the icing on the cake is getting the chance to speak with award-winning film and television writer, director and producer, Busisiwe Ntintili, the African Original’s creator, showrunner and executive producer. After a brief introduction, we jump right in to speaking about the challenges of producing a show of this scale in the middle of an unpredictable worldwide pandemic.
“It was definitely the most challenging production I’ve ever done. When we started, the whole world didn’t know that this pandemic was coming, so we had started shooting in January/February 2020 and we were almost halfway through when it became apparent that this was a real global pandemic.”
The show literally couldn’t go on. Production was put on hold, the actors and crew were sent home and the indefinite wait began. “Everyone was trying to figure it out as we went along, but I think the industry came together and figured out how, once it was safe again, we could resume shooting.” Eventually, all that effort paid off – because, once its official teaser and trailer hit Netflix and thousands of entertainment platforms across the globe, JIVA! finally got its time in the sun.
“[The response] has been really fantastic. The show, really, is about young, Black South Africans who are following their dreams, and dance is such a big part of the pop culture of our youth. So, when the trailer came out, the response I started to see, all over social media, was people saying: This is for the culture! This is for us! This is our story! For me, this is the biggest compliment.” As an African, I couldn’t possibly relate more with the joy of feeling seen. The sheer power of representation can never – should never – be underestimated.
Beyond empowerment, the goal for Busisiwe was always to create something with a lasting effect on its audience. “For me, it’s an inspirational story. It’s the story of underdogs who are chasing after their dreams. At the end of the day, I think the message was inspired by watching so many South Africans who are doing that on a daily basis, taking risks, and the message [ultimately] is: No matter your age, it’s never too late to go after your dreams. Life is short; just go for it!”
Ready to Jiva?! The new series launches on June 24th!
Watch the trailer below:
JIVA! is a fun and energy-packed drama series that follows the life of the talented street dancer Ntombi, who while juggling the demands of a dead end job, family responsibility and a rocky love life realises that her dance moves could be her ticket out of her working class neighbourhood in Durban. But first, she must overcome her fears, beat her rivals and sort out the chaos that is her family.
Directors: Scottnes L Smith, Mandla Dube, Busisiwe Ntintili
Showrunner: Busisiwe Ntintili (Happiness is Four Letter Word)
Writers: Busisiwe Ntintili and Bakang Sebatjane
Choreographers: Tom London and Bontle Modiselle
Producers: Busisiwe Ntintili, Adam Friedlander and Tebogo Maila
Key Cast: Noxolo Dlamini (Sarafina, The Lion King), Candice Modiselle (The Queen and Generations: The Legacy), Zazi Kunene (Moya), Stella Dlangalala, Sne Mbatha, Prince Grootboom, Given Stuurman (Invictus and Scandal), Zamani Mbatha (Rhythm City and Isithembiso), Anga Makubalo (Generations and Isidingo)