“You paint this picture in your mind of this monster, and then you meet the person and he’s just a man. An old man, with no teeth, bifocal glasses, and a bad arm.”
So says director Jasyn Howes about meeting Stewart Wilken, the subject of his spine-chilling documentary series Boetie Boer: Inside The Mind Of A Monster. Billed as the most disturbing Showmax Original true-crime series to date, the five-part, 18(SV)LVP documentary is now streaming, with new episodes on Wednesdays until 15 November 2023.
Howes met Wilken in prison, where the serial killer is serving seven life sentences for his killing spree in Port Elizabeth, now Gqeberha, in the 90s.
Dr Gérard Labuschagne, the former section head of the Investigative Psychology Section of the South African Police Services, had given Howes his recording from 2006 of just over three hours of Wilken sharing, in his own words, everything he’d done. But Labuschagne had stipulated that Howes needed Wilken’s permission to use it.
“I’ve been to prisons a handful of times in my life and it’s always weird, partly because you go through all of these steps to get in,” says Howes. “And you’re going to prison to meet somebody who’s done horrible things, yet you have to build trust and show respect and thank them for their time, you know what I mean? As if you’re visiting someone of importance. Like, when I met Wilken, I brought him wine gums, because he’s toothless, so he can only chew soft sweets, which he loves, even though he’s diabetic and has health issues now…”
Howes had a clear plan on how to approach the meeting. “I grew up in a blue-collar community so I went into this knowing what I needed to do, to meet this man on his level. It’s about a stiff grip handshake, it’s about eye contact, it’s all of that. If he looks at me, I need to look at him. I was very clear not to let him feel dominant, and I was honest, as honest as I could be, within reason.”
But he admits the meeting left him feeling disturbed. “It’s his eyes… The way he looks at you is very unsettling. He does look through you, and he has this weird glint in his eyes that, yeah, only a person that’s done what he’s done would have.”
Speaking of Labuschagne’s recording, Howes says, “It is very triggering content but it is fascinating. When Wilken talks about his murders, it’s quite something. He talks about them quite plainly and goes into detail that is shocking. It’s strange hearing a human being talk about what he’s done to other human beings, the most disgusting things possible, like cannibalism and necrophilia, with no emotion.”
He adds, “What was also interesting was how he’s kept the past alive for himself and how his narrative supports his idea that he’s a victim, that he comes from a troubled past, which shaped him into the monster he became. So there’s a lot of insight into the how and why of what he did. It’s also interesting to just hear some of his motivations: his relationship to religion and God, his relationship to his children, to drugs, and to his past.”
Wilken had already been in jail for eight years at the time of Labuschagne’s interview. “He’d had time to settle into that and he had nothing to hide,” says Howes. “And he’s clean by then, so he didn’t have a head full of drugs. It’s about as clear and precise and candid as he was ever gonna get. And it’s quite unfiltered; it’s the honest truth, at least from his perspective.”
Of course, Wilken’s is not the only perspective, so Howes balances his version of events with interviews with Labuschagne, as well as former Child Protection Unit investigator Sergeant Ursula Barnard and Sergeant Derrik Norsworthy formerly of the Murder and Robbery Unit, who both played key roles in bringing Wilken to justice. In addition, Howes interviews Wilken’s own surviving children, Sonnika-Lee and Sergius, and the family of one of Wilken’s victims, Georgina Zweni.
“Boetie Boer is not just about Stewart Wilken,” says Howes. “It’s also about the time and the place. About PE as an almost forgotten city back then. About the darkness that remained in South Africa in the 90s despite all the euphoria that came with the transition to democracy. The series also traces the formation of the profiling section within the South African Police Services, how they were learning how to catch serial killers from the original Mindhunter, Robert Ressler, and the FBI just as South Africa opened up to the world again.”
When Howes started production on Boetie Boer, Wilken was theoretically up for 25-year parole in 2023. This seems unlikely now but still shaped the series. “Boetie Boer aims to remember Wilken’s crimes and his victims,” says Howes. “He preyed largely on un-homed, disenfranchised people that he thought would be easily forgotten; we’ve tried to help make sure that doesn’t happen.”
The five-part documentary series is a co-production between Stage 5 Films and Howes’ Fifth Floor Films. It’s the third documentary, and first true-crime docuseries, from Stage 5 Films, building on the success of Unearthed, which won the Green Award at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival and the Audience Award at Encounters, and The Journeymen, which took home Best SA Documentary at Durban.