Cape Town - Finding an authentic gay character in an Afrikaans film is nearly impossible. Whilst the Afrikaans film industry is booming, it’s yet to give a voice to minorities.
When a local film does have a gay lead it’s usually reserved for a nouveau audience. Gay characters in mainstream Afrikaans films are always diminished to cliché-ridden background figures.
That’s even more reason to welcome Christiaan Olwagen’s new film Canary (Kanarie) with open arms. This coming-of-age musical war drama is set in South Africa in 1985 and centres on a young boy named Johan Niemand (Schalk Bezuidenhout) who gets called on by the military and auditions for the Canaries - the South African Defence Force’s church choir and concert group.
Johan believes the choir will be his ticket out of fighting the war, but then he begins to see the role he plays in the oppression and injustice around him. Whilst on tour around the country he develops feelings for a fellow Canary named Wolfgang (Hannes Otto) and he starts to question everything he knows about himself.
Christiaan, who started his career in theatre, is also the mastermind behind the critically acclaimed Johnny is Nie Dood Nie. With Canary he brings to local cinemas a heart-wrenching story that expertly explores the intricacies of discovering your true self. Canary is a beautiful gay love story that fearlessly stands up for those whose voice often get lost in a world of oppression.
Local comedian Schalk Bezuidenhout makes his big screen debut in this award-winning drama. The film earlier this year walked away with the title of "Best Film" at the 2018 Silwerskerm Film Festival held annually in Camps Bay, Cape Town. It also received glowing reviews from critics at film festivals around the globe including at Outfest – the LGBT-oriented film showcase and festival in Los Angeles.
THE FUNNY THING ABOUT DRAMA
According to Schalk he first appeared on director Christiaan’s radar during a stand-up performance at the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival held in Oudtshoorn; "Christiaan saw me do stand-up, which is where he got the idea to ask me to come for an audition. I did a show at the KKNK in 2016 and I actually made a joke about singing in the choir and that maybe sparked the idea in him."
He added; "I think it also has to do with me looking a bit like composer Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. The film is based on his true-life experiences. He’s also the film’s music director. I think with my shaved hair we look alike. I don’t know if Christiaan considered me for the role at all before he saw me doing that joke. Usually when casting a dramatic role the first thought is not usually a comedian. Especially, if you take into consideration that on a professional level I haven’t really done any serious roles."
This wasn’t Christiaan’s first time working with a comedian in a serious role. He previously worked alongside Rob van Vuuren in Henrik Ibsen’s psychological thriller, A Doll's House.
For Schalk the challenge wasn’t in taking on a more serious role, but rather in creating a believable character; "People always ask me if it was harder to do because it’s a serious role. But I don’t really find much of a difference between a serious role and a comedic one. For me…acting is just hard. Acting is just hard for an actor. At the end of the day whether it’s drama or comedy you still need to stay true to the character.
"You still need to make the audience believe you’re not Schalk Bezuidenhout in that moment, but that you are the character. Conveying a character to an audience in a believable manner is the greatest challenge and it has very little to do with whether it’s a comedy or a drama."
(A scene from Canary with Schalk Bezuidenhout as Johan Niemand. Photo: Supplied)
LIFE IS A STAGE
Although it was the 26-year-old comedian’s first time in a big screen role he felt right at home in front of the cameras.
This might have a lot to do with Christiaan’s approach to making the film. Schalk explains; "Because Christiaan comes from a theatre background rehearsals are very important to him. It’s not like other film projects where you get to set and then you maybe rehearse the scene once or twice before filming. With Christiaan there was a good two to three weeks of just rehearsals without any cameras.
"We got together in this little church hall in Cape Town where we went every day and rehearsed. That way you get to explore the themes and the scene before settling on a version that will be filmed. By the time you do get on set you sort of already have the scene down and it’s just bringing in the other elements like lighting and cameras. On set we would rehearse the scene a few times before we actually film it."
(Johan Niemand auditions to be part of the SANDF's Canary choir group. Photo: Supplied)
FAKE IT UNTIL YOU MAKE IT
In Canary, Schalk really had to tap into his musical skills. Not only did he have to be able to sing his heart out but also convince the audience that he’s a talented piano player.
"I’m not a soloist. I mean I did sing in the choir at school and can hold a note in a group, but I’m not individually a fantastic singer. I’m not actually playing piano in the movie – I had to fake it. Charl-Johan helped me get to a place where I was at least putting my fingers in the right place. So if you look from far it creates the illusion that I’m actually playing the piano.
"Fun fact about the movie is that Germandt Geldenhuys who plays the role of Ludolf, a big singing role in the movie, and I were actually in the choir together in school. We actually both sang in Hoërskool Jeugland’s choir in Kempton Park."
(The Canaries join the front line. Photo: Supplied)
TAKE A BOW
With theatre comes instant gratification after a performance is done with the audience immediately reacting, but with film that feedback is often delayed for months or even years.
However this wasn’t a problem for Schalk who says that as an actor he strives to bring the director’s vision to life; "Usually I’d check in with Christiaan to see if he’s happy. Christiaan also wouldn’t call it a day until he’s happy with the final product. He doesn’t settle for second best. So I know that when Christiaan says he’s happy then I’m happy."
As for the audience’s reaction, Schalk has a very sober view on what to expect; "It is nerve-wracking to wait for feedback from the audience. Especially with a more conservative Afrikaans audience. Until now the feedback has been nice because it has only showed at film festivals where all those attending are either artists themselves or in some way interested in the arts.
"Remember your conservative ‘oom and tannie’ isn’t at the film festival. I was never nervous about feedback from any of the film festivals or premieres. The real test will be on 19 October when it comes out on the big screen and now it’s everyone going to watch – from a 13-year-old in school, to very open people, to very close-minded people. Then we’ll see what the reaction will be."
"But I think the publicity and marketing around the film has painted a very clear picture on what it’s about. If you are very, very close-minded, conservative, and have no tolerance towards homosexuality then by this stage you would know this film is not for you."
He adds; "I think it’s a very beautiful and important story. I hope that the film will mean something to young people who are struggling with their sexuality. Hopefully it helps them feel less scared."
Canary (Kanarie) is currently showing in selected South African theatres.