• Harriet Gavshon
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Hardly a month after walking away with 11 South African Film and Television Awards (Saftas) in March, popular SABC drama series InterSEXions has clinched an international accolade in the form of the coveted George Foster Peabody Award.
“We were notified by email of our win,” said Harriet Gavshon, MD of Curious Pictures, the production company that is responsible for the hugely popular series.
“We’re really excited about this. It’s a big achievement and we take the Peabody particularly seriously.”
The Peabody is the oldest electronic media award in the world, having started in 1940.
The awards are considered among the most prestigious and selective prizes in electronic media and each year between 25 and 35 productions from around the world are named as winners.
Curious Pictures worked with several partners on the project – including USAID; the Johns Hopkins Health and Education in South Africa; ANTS Multimedia and SABC Education – and for this, Gavshon said, they are grateful.
“It’s an important project, needless to say. The funding we got helped us to get our mission and vision through nicely,” she said.
InterSEXions first aired on SABC1 in October 2010 and had resounding feedback from viewers after just the first episode.
This, Gavshon asserted, was part of the mission of the project – to get people talking about HIV and Aids, its impact on their lives and what they could do differently in their lives.
The unique format that the series adopted – of multiple storylines that are part of a bigger network of people affected by the virus – won viewers over, and they took to social networking sites to talk about the show.
This worked very well for the producers, said Gavshon, because it gave them the advantage of seeing through viewers’ eyes what worked in the show and what didn’t.
“Part of the point of the show was to get people talking, among themselves and with us, about issues related to HIV/Aids, and to spread the point of our message – that people must protect themselves from the disease.”
Twenty-six episodes later, people were still talking!
The InterSEXions Facebook page, which is almost 30 000 fans-strong, continues to update with everything from anecdotal messages to advice shared among fans.
Gavshon, joking about how the concept has become part of the daily lives of fans, said even the title InterSEXions has become part of common language, cropping up in discussions over sexual health and behaviour.
“I like that people have embraced it to that extent,” she said.
For the project to work well, the production team had to pay attention to every last detail of every single story, again owing to its never-been-done-before format.
“In terms of the production itself, the writing had to be intricate because of the unique format of the series. This took about two years to complete before the cameras started rolling,” said Gavshon.
“The message we’ve been working on from day one has been a simple one: ‘Protect yourself’.”
Gavshon added that unlike numerous other HIV/Aids education programmes, the idea behind InterSEXions was not to patronise viewers, but to inspire them, all the while keeping them entertained with the drama element.
Opportunity for aspiring writers
The project would not have fulfilled its mandate had it not incorporated a certain level of participation with fans of the series.
It was on Facebook that the producers ran a competition for scriptwriters who wanted to get a hands-on feel of the production.
“Four winners were selected this way and they got to be part of the show,” said Gavshon.
The four took part in a workshop that enabled them to develop their story ideas for the series.
One of the young writers, Khono Mtetwa said: “We had to lay ourselves bare. It was very difficult – it wasn’t easy for any of us,” she said, adding: “By the time we left, we felt we had known each other for years.”
The only thing better for fans of InterSEXions would be InterSEXions2, right?
Asked whether viewers can expect a sequel to the successful series any time soon, Gavshon could not give away too much but said that the second instalment can be expected early next year.
“We can’t say it will follow the same format, because we have to keep it interesting, but it will be very exciting.”
She added that the nature of the series – which does not follow the usual linear storyline format – opens up opportunities for the production team to be adventurous and explore different writers with varying degrees of experience to bring into the fold.
The Peabody Award
Administered by the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia, the Peabody Awards were named in honour of George Foster Peabody, described on the university’s website as a financier and major benefactor of the institution.
Asked if any of the main actors would be attending the ceremony, which takes place in New York on 21 May, Gavshon said out of 58, it would be hard enough to notify them of the win, let alone try to figure out who will go and who will not!
“Outside of Curious Pictures we will probably have people from our various partners also going. It’s early still to confirm the logistics.”
Among the other winners of awards are Fuji Television for a production called The Untold Stories of the Tsunami in Japan; Bhutto, a documentary about the late Pakistani leader produced by American network PBS; and Al Jazeera for its coverage of the Arab awakening.