Here is a film that celebrates the different amongst us as seen through the timeline of South Africa in 1985, where a troupe of “Canaries” (South African Defence Force Choir and Concert Group—1985 version) is assembled from the apparent misfits from Botha’s regular soldiers who—under cover of protection from terrorists—go about the punitive task of ensuring white élite rule over the majority of South African blacks (notably in the townships). And with the national election just days from now, the timing could not have been better.
Somewhat similar to Les Choristes (cross-reference below), director/co-writer (along with Charl-Johan Lingenfelder—who also wrote the original music) Christiaan Olwagen has fashioned a multilayered essay on the ills of society in that country, at that time digging deep into the persecution of homosexuals, Indigenous peoples and those who stood by—or worse, participated—all in the name of God.
At the centre of it all is “farm boy” Johan (in his film début, Schalk Bezuidenhout shows an acting talent that should be given further opportunities to develop), whose musical talents (as singer and pianist) are soon dwarfed by his gay longings when surrounded by men. One of those is trombonist Wolfgang (Hannes Otto, most suitably cast for the catalytic part). The two readily fall in love, but the spectre of religious damnation leads to arguments and estrangements that only a furtive handjob can alleviate.
The members of the artistic trust use many stereotypes to make their points and balance the players. Fatboy Ludolf (Germandt Geldenhuys plays the role with courage, taking his colleagues’ taunts but also sings his scintillating tenor lines better than any of them); the boot camp corporal from hell (Beer Adriaanse) is appropriately crude, homophobic and unbending. On the religious front, Gérald Rudolf serves up a holier-than-thou reverend, while Jacques Bessenger does his level best to offer wisdom and a very limited conducting style to his musical charges.
For the pivotal musical numbers (mostly singing government-sanctioned propaganda songs as the boys ply their wares to the frontline troops), the acapella moments resonate best.
While the choir is on tour, the interactions with a bigot, tart and avowed communist permit the opportunity for the non-sexual points to be driven home.
But it is Johan’s inner struggles that feed most of the drama. Will this gay “canary” have the courage to escape society’s cage? Take a look and discover for yourself!
And kudos to whomever provided the choreography/fantasy scenes, and the photo montages which wordlessly made many political/societal points. Chris Vermaak’s cinematography was nothing short of superb, while Eva Du Preez’s editing skills were most certainly top of class. JWR