“A good cry usually helps”: SA’s king of true crime on his new Stella Murders documentary
David Enright established himself as South Africa’s king of true crime with Devilsdorp, the smash-hit documentary series that was one of Showmax’s 10 most streamed titles of 2021, sold internationally and won the 2022 SAFTA for Best Made for TV Documentary.
His second true-crime documentary, Stella Murders, releases this Friday, 17 March 2023. The feature-length Showmax Original documentary investigates the deaths of best friends Sharnelle Hough (17) and Marna Engelbrecht (16) at their hostel at Stella High School in North West. On Saturday morning, 26 May 2018, Sharnelle is found hanged by the staircase and Marna is discovered in a bathroom. Is it a double suicide or a murder?
David was also head of content on Survivor SA: Return of the Outcasts, which became available to binge on Showmax at the start of March 2023.
We caught up with David to find out more about Stella Murders, which has already been praised as “gripping” by Die Son, “quietly empathetic” by Business Day, and “heart-wrenching” by Sarie, with Netwerk24 saying the story is told “factually, objectively and with compassion” so that, whether or not you followed the murders and the trial, “Stella Murders will captivate – the whole 90-minute long.”
What attracted you to Stella Murders? Why did you want to direct this documentary?
I had to give that a lot of thought. The initial pitch was from the perspective of the accused and involved investigating some conspiracy theories, but the research showed none of those held water. So when IdeaCandy brought me on board, I said, ‘Okay cool, but we have to reevaluate.’ There is a lot of intrigue in the story, but we focused on capturing the emotion and impact rather than lots of sensational twists like in Devilsdorp. To allow Stella Murders to hold value and deliver on intrigue, we needed to step out of the usual true crime recipe, so credit to Showmax and IdeaCandy for giving me the support to do it ethically and respectfully, rather than looking for sensationalism.
How hard is it to convince people who’ve been through something this traumatic to appear in a documentary?
It is really difficult. At one stage, someone put one of the letters we’d written on Facebook saying, ‘Can this just stop?’ With my name and personal phone number. And then someone else came back to say they didn’t agree with making a documentary, because it’s slimy to tell a story like this for commercial gain. That makes you ask: ‘Am I just doing this as a job, for commercial gain?’ So we had some heavy discussions. It became important for me to prove the doubters wrong.
We were told that Sonja Hough, Sharnelle’s mother, would be one of the most challenging family members to get to. But I was able to get hold of her and she agreed to let me come see her. No cameras; just me, her and assistant producer Minette van der Walt, providing crucial support and compassion. And Sonja was then very influential in getting the others to talk to us.
I went to Stella and spent a week in the area, praying that they could meet me, because it’s easier when they put a face to a name. I think people appreciated that we took that effort.
Sonja’s interview was quite early on in filming. The next morning, she sent me a message to say, ‘Thank you, David. We are experiencing laughter this morning. Yesterday felt like therapy.’
That helped me personally, to feel like, ‘Okay, now I can do this. We can add value to people’s lives.’
Talking is the most powerful thing. Having someone listen; it’s extremely powerful. There is something truly profound that happens when experiences are shared.
We saw that with other interviewees too; when we went back a second time, we could see improvements and people had done things they’d been putting off.
Why do you think the Stella Murders case resonated across South Africa?
Unfortunately, two teenage girls being murdered isn’t unique in South Africa, but this happened in a small town, where there is a strong perception of safety, and at the school hostel, a place where parents expect their children to be safe. I think that’s part of what makes it so shocking.
Why should South Africans watch Stella Murders?
Stella Murders is in some ways a portrait of grief and community. The trauma that these families experienced firsthand is a microcosm of what South Africa is also experiencing. We often neglect to allow ourselves to grieve. The irony is that when we allow ourselves to fully experience our emotions and work through them, we lessen the grip they hold on us. There is a catharsis of some kind. That’s what I hope Stella Murders can facilitate for the audience. A good cry usually helps, and I think most South Africans need a good cry right now.
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P.S. Great news! Until the end of March 2023, subscribers who pay for one month of Showmax will receive a second month at no extra cost. Watch local true-crime like Stella Murders and Girl, Taken, as well as hit international series like HBO’s The Last of Us and Oscar-winning films like Top Gun: Maverick. This deal applies to Showmax and Showmax Mobile plans and is available to new and returning Showmax subscribers. The Showmax 2-for-1 deal is available at www.showmax.com.