Blood Psalms: The biggest show to come out of Africa
BY Georgi R. Chakarov
Blood Psalms is undoubtedly the biggest and most spectacular series production to come out of Africa. The debut in late September received raving reviews in South African media and immediately shot up to the top of the charts of local streamer Showmax which will release a new episode every Wednesday until December 6.
Georgi R. Chakarov got on the phone with series creator Jahmil XT Qubeka to talk about the idea and philosophy behind the show and the long process of creating its universe, characters and their stories and bringing them to the screen in such an unprecedented way for African television.
Jahmil, congratulations on the impressive concept and production! Let’s start with the main question: how did you come up with the idea for this show?
I always say I didn’t write Blood Psalms but that I downloaded it (laughs), but on a more serious note, it came with the desire to create heroic archetypes for African people. We live in very flux and interesting time, especially when I consider my childhood and how things were more concrete back then than they are now. Now everything has a question mark around it. With that in mind, I look at the stories that tend to be told and how really most of them don’t really have an African context, and all we were given were mud huts and loincloths and a lot of posterization of cattle… but no fundamental Origin story. With Blood Psalms, we take a look back at what our heritage is. So, the idea came from that desire of wanting to see African archetypes that youths can look up to.

How did you pitch the idea to the broadcaster and what was their reaction to it?
When you have a strong concept it immediately identifies a need to be fulfilled and that need is pretty much what I just said: the lack of Black and African archetypes affects us as a culture. So, I asked where are these archetypes and what could be “the commercial success” if they are created.

What are the key elements and structure of the story?
I am inspired by the legend of Atlantis and if you look at Plato and Herodotus they both have interesting accounts of this “fabled place”. But the most astonishing thing about it, by Herodotus’ account, is that it was possibly located in Africa – Mauritania to be specific, just at the bottom of what is now the Atlas Mountains. I found this really fascinating and I started to look at Africa with that kind of lens: What if Atlantis was in fact in Africa? And if so, what kind of world would that have been? This is a world in pre-diluvian time, about eleven, twelve thousand years ago, just before a great cataclysm is about to hit the Earth and for some reason unknown Atlantis has just sunk. Thus, the destruction of Atlantis becomes a foreboding for all other nations. We come upon the Kingdom of Akachi where a very paranoid king is trying to hold on to his power against the backdrop of a prophecy which 18 years ago said that on her 18th birthday his daughter would take his throne. So, we are looking at a man who is even spooked by his own shadow in his attempt to avoid the demise of his kingdom. At the same time, the king is hosting a wedding, marrying a much younger woman from a druidic order – people who are rainmakers, in a moment when the kingdom is facing a drought. You can see her a direct link to Moses warning the Pharaoh about the coming calamities.

We also see the story thru the eyes of his daughter who is prophesied to take over his throne. She is going thru some incremental changes, but she is not quite aware of them. She is actually not a very nice person, but she has the image of “the good princess” but she is actually the bringer of that apocalypse.

Can we also say that it is a type of Game of Thrones setting where we have clashes among different clans trying to take power?
In terms of genre, yes. I call this type of shows “sword and soul” fantasy shows. We’ve got our own flavor but yes, I can imagine that GoT fans would watch this show. It is certainly Africa’s proud answer to the genre.

The transformation of the characters is also one element that would be attractive to viewers. Can you tell us more about that?
Yes, beyond the spectacle of the biggest visual effects show to come out from Africa and the reason why I am so excited about this series is because it is a character-driven piece. At the heart of it are the journeys that each of the characters go thru, and I also say the distinct note for all of them is that they pretty much lose their skin, metaphorically. The princess herself start for a type of Paris Hilton personality to becoming the center of a conspiracy and then she journeys to the farthest realms by virtue of being exiled. There is a transformation in her when she engages the groups of society that she has always looked down upon because of her downright ignorance. Actually, all of the characters have something Shakespearean in that way. For example, General Toka – he is the leader of the Akachi army, he comes from an enemy tribe and has always been a bit of an outsider. His transformation is insane. He breaks the code and he is put up for treason, and eventually put to death. But in this world, where we also explore what happens to the soul, just like in ancient Egyptian traditions, we follow his life after death and where he goes, and that journey itself is a mind trip, literally.

You bring this combination of psychology, mysticism and ancient history, creating a whole new story which people can identify with…
Exactly, it reflects on my frustration with history which is an absolute hotch-potch of a merged mess, and the hypothesis is quite simple: What if there was a reset of civilization 11000 years ago, and anything before it is possible. You can compare it to Marvel and how they switch things around because all of our origins are based on conjecture and fable and this particular show plays on our belief system, and it all combines with politics and humor as we dig into the psychology of the characters. So, you will see some quasi connections with either mythology from other cultures, a play on history and belief systems and even modern-day politics. There are also some parallels to South Africa, where we are today. Ego aside, I can say one thing – there is nothing like it!

How long did it take you to develop the whole storyline, the characters, this whole universe? It’s a huge process. How many people did you have engaged in this?
The development and writing process was about three years. It’s a personal project which comes from my heart and mind, but collaboration was really key. We had about two or three different writing rooms. Even at some point I totally passed on the bat to someone else to see if they can be the head writer – this was part of this natural process which takes all sorts of alterations. Towards the latter part of the second year, we started hitting the groove and it came again from a more one-dimensional perspective which was my own. So, I started writing it more from my own end, and I ended up writing all the episodes but that wasn’t the initial intention. I call it a “download” because the way that I wrote it was quite interesting. I found myself writing it from characters first, so not in a linear way. I would take a character and I would write that character’s story and then literally you stick it together with everybody else. So, for each episode you decide which strand is the purveying one. Now that I look at it in retrospect, I see archetypal aspects of self, represented by each character.

Another part of this process must have been visualizing each of these characters and how you would show them on the screen. How complicated was that process with your creative team?
When you invite other collaborators, for me the part that I really love about this process is that moment which is a moment of affirmation for the project when you can see that other person speak about specific elements in a very personal way. That’s when I am: “Okay, we are on to something!” I have a team of people that I work with a lot, starting with my producer and editor Layla Swath who helps me with the scope and rendition of the show. Then, we bring closer the creative team which includes my production designer Chantel Carter, my director of photography Willie Nell and my wardrobe designer Pierre Vienings and also makeup with Nicola Roodt. So, each one of them takes on the quest while I kept feeding them with the details. I would say the biggest responsibility was on the production designer Chantel Carter who was in charge of constructing this whole new universe based on the budget we had. And what I loved about her work is that very early on she said: “I want to bring you 360-degree sets so in any way you look, you are in the reality of this world.” I immediately jumped on that. I didn’t know how she was going to do it because I was thinking about performance and my actors in a unique situation where they don’t a reference for this world in terms of how those people dress, walk, talk… so the 360 approach helped in that respect. The same goes for wardrobe. The costumes are so elaborate that the details tell a story in themselves. That really helped the actors to build characters around them.

And also, one of the things I have been blessed with is how I am at ease of visualizing something, so even when I write I am already solving the puzzles. I never write without considering execution.

What do you expect will be the reaction of viewers and also of the international industry to this production?
I have been doing films for 21 years and I can say that I have never had this kind of reaction before I have even released it. I’m full of excitement. I feel like I am the luckiest man on the planet.

You have created a whole saga which could go for lots of seasons but in your head how do you imagine the evolving of this universe?
I would say that without it becoming pretentious and labored it is definitely a three to four season show in regard to closing all of its chapters; that is my ambition. But audience engagement will determine whether that happens or not. There has never been a show like this coming out of here. There is a lot of excitement but there is also a lot of trepidation. From an artistic perspective, I have engaged the story and concluded it in a way that I would be satisfied if it ended with one season. But it does leave you in a space wanting more.

Also, this could not only be a TV show, it could also turn into a series of books, lots of characters, merchandise, African culture, which will be embraced by people…
I really hope so. Everything you said basically summed up my ambitions for the project, all the way down to a game. But the first step is to see what the audiences will think after the premiere.
Xolani Thandikaya Qubeka, professionally known as Jahmil X.T Qubeka, is a South African film director, screenwriter, and producer. Blood Psalms is his first series creation. Prior to that, his 2014 film Of Good Report won the 2014 Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Film. At the 15th edition of the Awards he was named Best Director for the action thriller Sew the Winter to My Skin, which was also an Oscars entry, followed by his 2019 film Knuckle City.
Blood Psalms

In ancient Africa, the five surviving houses of Kemet face the prophesied end of days. A young princess must navigate primordial curses, long-standing ancestral vendettas and her role as the damning prophecy’s chief harbinger. The Showmax Original was co-produced by Canal+.
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