Plaasjapie director Nina Swart on new reality series: It’s the little farming adventure show that could

Presenter Ewan Strydom and director Nina Swart on the set of Plaasjapie.

Presenter Ewan Strydom and director Nina Swart on the set of Plaasjapie. Photo supplied

  • Director Nina Swart ventured into new TV territory for kykNET’s reality show Plaasjapie.
  • Swart moved behind the camera following her long stint as Wilmien on the SABC2 soapie, 7de Laan.
  • In this Q&A, Swart tells us more about the show, the casting process and the experience she gained.

After moving behind the camera following her long stint as Wilmien in SABC2’s 7de Laan, and has since worked on South African reality, drama and lifestyle series -from small to big-budget shows like Survivor South Africa.

Plaasjapie as a new TV format for kykNET meant Nina Swart entered strange new TV territory: Filled with baby pigs, cow dung and contestants getting injured on a farm.

Swart sat down with Channel24 to talk about how Plaasjapie, filmed on a farm in the Swartland, challenged her as director, the casting process, and South African TV contestants becoming more reality TV savvy.

You’ve worked on so many other reality shows. How has that experience helped you to hold the reigns of Plaasjapie as director?

I try to know as much as possible about each and every department on set. I’ve worked on big-budget shows and also on lower-budget programmes like smaller lifestyle shows. There you learn over the years to make plans.

To work with a smaller budget to try and achieve more and to get more bang for your buck is something I’ve learned to do on a very practical level over the years. The scale of Plaasjapie on screen is bigger than what was planned. It’s the little farming adventure show that could. We had a fantastic technical team with people I’ve worked with before and people I’ve wanted to work with, and they all said yes when you make plans and have a great technical team. They bring their experience of working on smaller sets and having worked on bigger sets to play with your eyes.

A strong format also helps so much. Plaasjapie has a wonderful showrunner in Albert Snyman (also the creator). He’s also a plan-maker and a storyteller, and he researched the entire history of humanity’s farming past. We were safe with Albert and his knowledge and had fun making an adventure reality show.

How did the entries look for Plaasjapie, seeing it’s an unfamiliar show and concept?

I’ve been privileged in the past to often be involved with casting from the start – for instance, several seasons of Survivor South Africa, Boer Soek’ n Vrou, Temptation Island and Trap Dis My Huis!, Op my Eish! – so I have a good idea of numbers.

Can I tell you, it was more entries than I have ever seen for the first season of an unknown TV format. A lot of the entries, I think, were due to the show’s title, Plaasjapie, since we didn’t even mention a prize at the beginning. Of course, after the R1 million as the prize was mentioned later, there was another spike in entries, but the initial entries were unbelievable based on the show’s name.

How difficult or easy was it to determine the mix of who you put in as contestants?

The mandate from kykNET was “the more city slicker-ish, the better”, but I also didn’t want to put purely one-dimensional South Africans in the show.

What’s the antithesis of a farmer? Is it a model? There’s more than just one “opposite”, so to create the mix – and Albert also created the format in such a way – I wanted to prove that someone of my age in their late forties can also win. Despite the fact that Plaasjapie might sound like a butch, young guy game, the point is that a middle-aged woman should also be able to win. Create a game where anyone can be the winner.

During casting, you truly just get people who pop and stand out. Since it’s a family adventure reality show, I also wanted Plaasjapie to be relatable characters. I haven’t been this excited about a show’s cast in a long time. Don’t judge a book by its cover. There’s something interesting and a twist to each of these people, and they’re definitely not just what you think they are when you first meet them. It’s been one of the most enriching casting processes I’ve been involved with.

Do you think South African reality show contestants are becoming “smarter” to know better what to do and say, how to behave, and what’s expected of them once the cameras roll? Are local reality contestants levelling up on the reality TV intelligence quotient?

I definitely think that’s the case, yes.

When we started with Boer Soek’ n Vrou in 2008 for kykNET – I mean, it was a big thing to try and find love or to expose yourself on television. For many years I’ve been aware of that. People often say Afrikaans people are different, they’re more reserved, and it’s exactly what you’re saying.

I think – and I’m speaking about the Afrikaans kykNET TV market but also the broader TV market – I think it’s led by the success of all of the Mzansi Magic (DStv 161) shows.

I don’t think we’re where the Americans are, and I also don’t think we’ll ever get to that level since there’s a tremendous honesty and earnestness under 95% of the contestants across all of the shows I’ve worked with. There is a percentage of fake quality under contestants from other countries, a type of “I must say this to make good TV,” but I find that the honesty of South Africans makes it more interesting and, secondly, leads to longevity for characters with all of their shades.

If how they present themselves were just a gimmick, they are not complex and multi-dimensional characters. I love the honesty of South Africans. They are still somewhat reserved -there’s a layer of “manners” – but there are more local lifestyle, and reality shows are making people understand better what they have to do. They’re not always willing to give it, but they understand it better.

Plaasjapie takes place over 21 days, for 13 episodes, and you did it on a farm in Philadelphia in the Swartland. How challenging was the process to find the farm and to get everything there, and where did the production team stay?

Philadelphia was very functional because it’s not too far away from Cape Town, so the production team transformed one of the sheds into a type of “one-night stand” technical base with a few beds and a working shower where you could sleep over if you were too tired after a day’s filming. But the majority drove home at the end of the end.

Production members long ago went to go make friends in that area, and the hill on which the cooperation stands – that structure where Ewan Strydom as the host can look out across his “farms”, and the arena – that layout was very attractive to us and that there wasn’t a tree in sight. The structures are still there, which were specifically erected for Plaasjapie.

What was challenging for you specifically, and what was challenging, in general, to get Plaasjapie in the can?

To produce any television during the Covid-pandemic was difficult with all the challenges inherent within our industry. That’s maybe the boring answer.

For me, it was, in a positive way, a challenge – to work with a new format and make sure that the show’s essence and what’s different about it shines.

It was doing a format that’s an adventure show in which people also learn something about themselves, and farming is celebrated. But also making strong, competitive television that keeps viewers glued – and to keep all those things running at the same time, under sometimes challenging weather conditions.

There wasn’t really any shade – not even for the crew. We had to build little houses with a bit of aircon inside. We worked in breaks for the crew just to go and feel a bit of aircon and cool down. On something like Survivor SA, there’s at least a tree or something often to stand under, but the crew stood with the contestants in the sun, in that dust for hours, with the wind. And people living in the Swartland know it’s wind, wind, wind!

You get home at night, and you have dust in your ears. And when you sit, there’s a thorn in your back. The joy was experiencing the true grit of the technical team and the contestants.

A new format is a challenge, and keeping it engaging for the viewer means every day is a new challenge to remain fresh, creative, and ahead of the game.

What did you enjoy and find enriching where you felt Plaasjapie expanded your skills and knowledge set?

Such a lot. I enjoy being part of a team a lot instead of being “the boss”.

Through the years, I became part of the content creation side of  television, and it’s my forte, and I enjoy it. On a personal level, it was so enriching to learn how to manage a big team and to work on a bigger platform. I also don’t believe in produced content. I’ve always believed in “I’m providing a proscenium, I’m doing observational reality”. I interfere very little. I try to do an honest depiction of what’s happening. To see that it works, that you can get great content if you don’t try to “produce” it – that’s very satisfying. I’m not trying to make the most dramatic television. I believe people are interesting anyway. Just illuminate people, and their character will shine.

Plaasjapie airs Thursdays at 20:00 on kykNET (DStv 144).

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