Starring: Schalk Bezuidenhout, Hannes Otto, Germandt Geldenhuys, Gérard Rudolf, Jacques Bessenger, Beer Adriaanse
Director: Christiaan Olwagen
Country: South Africa
It’s been a while since I last watched a film in Afrikaans… (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film in Afrikaans…) but in this coming-of-age quasi-musical set during apartheid, we follow Johan (Bezuidenhout), a young man discovering his burgeoning sexuality just as he is conscripted into the army. Carrying a picture of Boy George in his Bible, he joins a unit called the “Canaries”, a military choir tasked with performing religious songs to the families of conscripts up and down the country to bring them “hope” that their sons will return. Under the guidance of good cop/bad cop chaplains (Roudolf & Bessenger) and a permanently furious corporal (Adriaanse), Johan makes friends (Geldenheys) where he can and even finds a boy to fall in love with (Otto), but neither the army nor the church are his biggest obstacle. Above everything else, he cannot overcome the way he feels about himself.
Bezuidenhout is remarkable here, with Johan’s tremendous internal battle playing out in his face as he struggles between wanting to be happy and wanting to be virtuous. He stays quiet and keeps his head down, but in effervescent daydream sequences we see his true self; confident, happy, exuberant. While these sequences function well in contrast visually with the drab uniformity of the army, they do the same with the music too, placing retro glamour alongside the staid austerity of choral classicism.
Large chunks of the movie are shot in long tracking shots that follow characters through ensemble sequences, floating between vignettes as actors walk in and out of the frame. Technically, there is some pretty impressive composition going on here, especially in some of the sequences when the soldiers are touring the country. Add to that some pretty scene-stealing cameos from civilians they meet (an alcoholic housewife with a passion for fashion design; a self-proclaimed communist who won’t accept that their conscription doesn’t mean they support apartheid rule) and the film’s episodic structure makes for something actually quite ambitious that it (mostly) pulls off.
Unfortunately, the most interesting element of the narrative is also the part least developed. I can count on one hand how many films I’ve seen set during apartheid, while I’ve (literally) seen thousands of gay coming-of-age stories. The film chooses to focus on Johan’s internalised homophobia, which would have worked well in any movie about conscription, but by setting it on the side of a hostile and oppressive system without passing much comment on it is a bit of a missed opportunity. There are moments when we see this system in action – a series of live photos show us the soldiers frolicking on base, but also using their weapons on the country’s black community – but it’s pretty minimal and almost just window-dressing. There are times when it takes a political stance, but Johan ends up looking selfish for placing his own struggle centre-stage when the backdrop he lives against is so morally bankrupt. It goes for “less is more”, but we could do with just a smidge more here.
Kanarie gives us a handful of vivid characters who we grow to root for. Paired with a host of cinematic treats, this makes for a strong movie with a clear voice that is probably the best movie in Afrikaans you’ll see in 2019.