WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Kanarie (Afrikaans for Canary) is a coming-of-age musical war drama, set in South Africa in 1984/5, about a young boy who discovers how through hardship, camaraderie, first love, and the liberating freedom of music, the true self can be discovered.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
From the mind that brought to life my favourite Afrikaans film Johnny is Nie Dood Nie comes another fantastic film about what it meant to be gay at a time when your mere existence was outlawed.
Kanarie may be more of an on-screen theatre production, but with director Christiaan Olwagen at the wheel he translates it superbly to the screen with a style wholly unique in local cinema. While the hero’s journey of self-acceptance is a universal one, it remains the story of Afrikaans gay experiences and the suffering they endured when the world couldn’t accept them for who they are.
It’s 1985 in South Africa, and the Apartheid regime is still sending young conscripts to the Border War, but a lucky few land up in the army’s choir division – the Kanaries – who fulfil their duties by travelling the country to boost morale through music. One conscript Johan Niemand (Schalk Bezuidenhout) tries to keep his head down and not draw attention, while battling with his feelings for a fellow soldier (Hannes Otto).
One of the biggest surprises of the film is comedic Bezuidenhout, who is physically and emotionally unrecognisable in his first serious role onscreen. How Olwagen saw through his on-stage act to see the potential of tonal depth and soul in his performance is a great directing feat. The comedian completely disappears into the role of Niemand, a boy who’s been so conditioned to hate who he is that he can’t cope with getting what he desires.
And while the film is both a musical comedy and love drama, Bezuidenhout is never tempted to swerve into his usual self once, giving the comedic platform to his just-as-stunning costars. I have rarely heard such colourful Afrikaans insults so perfectly strung together, and I feel bad for any non-Afrikaans speakers who can’t fully appreciate the hilarity of some of the dialogue (although the subtitles are perfectly spot on.)
The whole cast, even the director and composer, have their roots in theatre, and while this can sometimes be detrimental to a film, in this case the theatre element worked perfectly with the subject material.
The music is another victory in the film, composed by co-writer Charl-Johan Lingenfelder who won Best Soundtrack at the Silwerskerm Festival for Olwagen’s Johnny is nie dood nie.
Kanarie took the school choir niche and turned it into a beautiful plot device, its holy songs contrasted with the music of 80s classics like Boy George and The Culture Club. Their fusion was intricately woven, and Bezuidenhout’s street dance scene opened the whole film on the perfect note.
Special mention is also owed to Germandt Geldenhuys, who is not only a hilarious actor, but has a voice that can make you cry and ready for battle. You can get lost listening to him, but luckily not too lost to lose your focus on the film. Accompanied by raw visuals and cinematography, Kanarie becomes more of a sensory experience rather than just a film.
Kanarie is another step in cementing top-notch quality in our local film scene, which over the last few years has grown into a spectacular cinematic movement, one that only needs the support of our local audiences. The film shows just one side of the Apartheid oppression (the oppression of black South Africans is adequately covered) but that it wasn’t just a physical oppression of laws – it was an oppression that is ingrained in your spiritual life, your family and even yourself, and finally breaking free from that cage can be as terrifying as it is liberating.