IT IS NOT everyday that you find a truly South African story told with unabashed frankness in the eye of the horror of apartheid. It’s even rarer that you find one that is not only about the broad terrain of apartheid, but one which also burrows in a very balanced way into its very underbelly, glancing at how it touched young white men. This is what you find in Christiaan Olwagen’s tough and deeply refined Kanarie, a film which, with sophisticated writing, music straight from heaven and a narrative that will haunt you, seems set to achieve classic status.
This Afrikaans-language film with English subtitles tells the difficult coming-of-age story of Johan Niemand (Schalk Bezuidenhout), a small-town child with deeply conservative family values. It’s a tale about sexual identity and powder blue eye shadow as it is one that skirts stereotypes and gets to the complicated nub of the matter with levity and earnestness, but never stoops into preciousness or the obvious. The work’s backdrop is 1985 South Africa, arguably the most violent and unpredictable period in apartheid’s trajectory, where a State of Emergency was declared and the gloves were off in bloody and cruel internecine battles spearhead by the whites in power.
Beautifully cast, with cameos by Dawid Minnaar and Albert Pretorius, the story is told around an unusual South African Defense Force contingent: a choir called the Kanaries (canaries) that was as much about public relations as it was about a loophole for certain types of extremely talented young men, mandatorily conscripted as they all were at the age of 18. But more than a simple army tale about good and bad this is a work that offers an account of the texture of the mid-1980s, from big hairdos and endemic homophobia to pop star Boy George and the Kulture Klub. It’s about tunes that were key to a young person’s existence at the time, young urgent club frequenters who needed their sexuality vindicated by stars in skirts.
It’s about SWAPO and the horrors of the Angolan war and what it did to soft young men forced to be political fodder, as it is about judgmental white anger on the streets for grand apartheid with all its legislation and poisonous bureaucracy. It’s about the sons of mothers who could track their credentials all the way back to the inside of Voortrekker bonnets, and it’s about traditions of respect articulated by young men in particular context.
Church, the state and the sound of choral music are central to this beautifully told tale of bosbefok. You will weep real tears when you look at Olwagen’s presentation of the new recruits with their devastating youth, grist for the propaganda mill. But you will never forget the level of horror confronted by Niemand as he meets his true self, amid all the sticky values with which he has been raised, the sham of racist hypocrisy, the horror of a thing in the process of dying and the beauty of male voices in choral tandem.
Featuring impeccable production design which makes you feel you’re steeped in photographic chemicals of the period, the work is also beautifully scripted and there are lines it in that will hold you tight, in spite of an ending which feels slightly too easy. You won’t readily brush aside the incentive to hold on to injustice inflicted because the thought that it could seep into nostalgic memory is not conceivable. This portrait of army horror is succinct and direct: the film is a ten out ten achievement.
- Kanarie is written by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and Christiaan Olwagen and is directed by Christiaan Olwagen assisted by Jaco Smit. It features a cast headed by Jacques Bessenger, Schalk Bezuidenhout, Ludwig Binge, Germandt Geldenhuys, Andrico Goosen, Francois Jacobs, De Klerk Oelofse, Hannes Otto, Gerard Rudolph and David Viviers. It is produced by Jaco Smit and Roelof Storm and features creative input by Chris Vermaak (photography), Rocco Pool (production design), Eva Du Preez (editing), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (music and sound design) and Mariechen Vosloo (costumes). Release date, through Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: October 19 2018.