Do you know your lover’s lovers?

*****This interview with InterSEXions content producer Karima Effendi originally appeared on JucyAfrica.com. This version has hyperlinks to some of my source material.*****

Like many other South Africans, I’ve been completely mesmerised by not only the production quality, stories and message carried by the hit TV show InterSEXions, but also by viewers’ reactions to it. In fact, it was the sheer volume of tweets the show generated that got me watching. It’s perhaps fitting then that a show that portrays the sexual network generates so much interest on the social networks.

Every week the show asks viewers, “do you know your lover’s lovers?” It tells 25 interconnected but independent stories that (will) travel a full circle. Each stand-alone episode takes viewers closer and closer to understanding the interconnectedness of our sexual networks.

I tracked down the show’s content producer Karima Effendi of Curious Pictures to ask her some of the more conceptual questions that came to my mind while watching the show.

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Karima, firstly, congratulations to you, Curious Pictures, Ants Multimedia, and your sponsors and partners for creating a hit show.

Thank you.

How much of a hit is it? Do you have information on weekly or total viewer ratings?

It’s quite a hit. A few weeks after being on air, InterSEXions became the most watched drama series on TV, second only to the long-running Generations soapie. The show attracts close to 4 million viewers each week according to the most recent primetime TAMS ratings.

Very impressive.

Thanks but more than that, I think what makes it “a hit” is more than simply the audience ratings (ARs), although of course it’s nice to get high ARs. There has been really provocative and open debate and discussion around the episodes, generally among people on the street, radio and other media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

I’m on Twitter and while not much of a TV watcher, I was compelled to watch the show simply because of the volume of tweets it generated. Was this an unexpected windfall or was it all part of the plan? The @InterSEXions twitter account is pretty active in the discussions.

Yes, both Twitter and Facebook sites are administered and monitored closely, and yes and it was part of the plan to generate as much cross-platform debate and discussion as possible. I think the volume generated, and also the level of honest sharing and discussion, exceeded even our initial expectations.

Social media platforms and the mobile web are becoming increasingly important communication and development tools in Africa. Congrats for recognising their importance. So the show is second in ARs behind Generations, but InterSEXions isn’t just another episodic drama to while away the hours is it? How did the concept for the show come about?

You’re right to pick up on this as have audiences. I think that InterSEXions is not mind-numbing TV, which can lull one into a deep sleep. InterSEXions is meant to move you, entertain you, sometimes disturb you, make you laugh, cry, sigh – all of this while moving you to think, to engage with others around you about what you’ve seen, and to reflect (and act) on this in your own life. I guess that’s what we set out to do really when we conceptualised the series.

So would you consider the show “edutainment”?

If by edutainment you mean something that both educates and entertains, then sure, it’s edutainment, but I wouldn’t get too hung up on labels. We wanted to rise above the clutter of AIDS educational media out there and really capture people’s imagination. We decided to communicate one message: as soon as we become sexually active, we are immediately locked into an unseen network that connects us to thousands of strangers. And we decided to communicate this not by hammering the message home every week, but rather by allowing the form (separate but interlinked stories) to communicate the message. We were striving to tell riveting and real stories that cut across race, class, gender and many other stereotypes. HIV is indiscriminate about where it moves and where it decides to live. So were we.

Nice. You’ve pre-empted one of the questions I had with that bit on cutting across stereotypes about HIV/AIDS. On the point of capturing imaginations, I think the show’s success speaks for itself. I’d imagine that it’s hard to get the balance right when you try educate and entertain. Stray too far to education and some would say it’s boring. Stray too far to entertainment and the message gets lost. Do you think InterSEXions has found a good balance between the two? Does the show’s success not give you pause on this balance?

Good question. I think it has found a reasonable balance. Like all idealists, I think there’s so much more that can still be done. Look, I don’t think we sat down to evaluate what the percentage of entertainment versus education was per episode. I think you’re right to identify that this would be very hard to do indeed. So we decided to allow the stories to speak for themselves. As people, as Africans, we know story. A good story that is well told will capture the imagination. We tried to educate and entertain at the same time, and this is very hard to get right using the visual medium of storytelling. Some episodes work better than others. Some will appeal to some people more than others. That’s life in such a diverse country. And because we decided to take the chance with this concept, which many may have thought too “high-brow”, the form freed us up as storytellers to let story breathe and do its thing.

[Sidebar: Great answer!]

So as an educational tool, what role do you see the show playing in influencing attitudes toward sex and sexuality, HIV/AIDS, condom usage and other health education concerns facing South Africa?

Tough one…I hope, we hoped the series would get audiences to reflect on what they see; that it would acts as a kind of mirror to their own lives, and to do so without judgement but with love or loathing or whatever emotion. We hoped audiences would relate to the characters’ motives and actions then think about their own motives and actions, and so become more conscious. The more aware we are of the things we do, the more we see that they actually have ripple effects…they impact on our own lives and the lives of others. So for example, how informed is the decision to sleep with someone after a drunken night out? And then what could be the consequences of that action? The aim of the series is not to point fingers, but rather to illustrate that we are living in a time where the decision to have sex is not without the possible consequence of contracting HIV, and knowing that if you have HIV, it is possible to live responsibly and happily.

Yes, sorry. That was a necessarily tough question, and not to lift the skirt on the whole operation, but one of your partners, Johns Hopkins Health and Education South Africa, contributed to paper on behavioural and social interventions and how they are integral to the fight against AIDS. The paper suggests that social and behavioural communication cannot directly impact HIV prevalence, but rather impacts the behavioural and social outcomes or ideational factors which in turn affect behaviours that prevent new HIV infections. As a social and behavioural communications tool (sorry to reduce such a well-thought-out show to a simple “tool”), InterSEXions, as you say, will act as a mirror and allow people to reflect on their actions.

Yes, the educational “tools” I hope we are imparting include taking greater control over the decisions we make when it comes to sex and relationships, to be more conscious of how HIV is more likely to thrive when there are cracks and fissures in those relationships, and finally that we are all one, really – that we are interconnected and in being interconnected, realising that it will take individuals to begin the process of effective collective change.

There are 26 episodes in this series (or season), correct? We’re at #13 and I’m already panicked about what I’ll be doing on Tuesdays at 8:30pm. Should we expect more seasons of InterSEXions?

Yes, there are 26 episodes in the series. I cannot confirm that there will be another season.

Okay. I’ll assume you won’t deny either that there will be more? Give us cause to hope!

There’s always cause to hope, I cannot unfortunately give that to you. Whether InterSEXions returns or not, the point’s been made. There are many ways to approach storytelling, to tell the stories of our land, our people, our world in ways that move audiences without boring them to tears and to effect change and encourage consciousness at the same time. The more we do all of that, the more seasons of “InterSEXions” we will continue to experience.

Fair enough. So my final question to you. Do you know your lover’s lovers?

Smart and it’s a rather personal question, but I can appreciate the sentiment to it. It’s valuable to begin open discussion about our past relationships – on many levels and not just around sex per se. At the end of the day, does anyone ever really know everything about someone’s past lovers? It’s a tough one. So the best we can do given that hard reality is to start by taking responsibility for our own sexual and overall wellbeing.

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*InterSEXions airs Tuesday at 20:30 on SABC 1.

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