This coming-of-age musical drama set in the height of apartheid – South Africa, 1985 – was easily one of the best movies of 2018 (and now that it’s left the big screen, it’s only available on Showmax).
Yes, that’s a bold claim, which I stand very firmly behind. If you’re unconvinced, have a look at Kanarie‘s official website for an impressive list of local and international awards for the film about Johan Niemand – “a young boy who discovers how through hardship, camaraderie, first love, and the liberating freedom of music, the true self can be discovered”.
Then have a look at The Hollywood Reporter review, for example, which Sheri Linden wrote after Kanarie’s first Stateside airing at Outfest (before it released in cinemas at home).
She refers to a cameo by acting legend Anna-Mart van der Merwe: “And in the film’s most surprising moments, the would-be caricature of a well-to-do and somewhat sloshed middle-aged woman instead delivers words of life-changing advice. It might be sheer drunken luck that she sees into Johan’s soul, but it’s with a wise fusion of compassion and whimsy that this drama does the same.”
It’s lovely to realise our friends across the ocean are able to appreciate the nuances of this wonderful film, which is in Afrikaans with English subtitles. Local viewers who are bilingual/tweetalig will grasp how well these are translated; too often you hear one thing, and read another.
Zaza Hlalethwa of Mail & Guardian nailed it: “The sole use of Afrikaans gives the scriptwriters an opportunity to show off the poetry in the language, along with the ways the language was used to blur lines in a way that could have confused congregations. For example, one of the chaplains speaks about how they need to fight against the ‘swartheid’ (darkness) of the times. In that scene, swartheid could be referring to people of colour.”
Johan Niemand is played by Schalk Bezuidenhout in the story co-written by director Christiaan Olwagen and musical director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. These two men are nothing short of exceptional in their fields. Kanarie is Olwagen’s third feature film, and with a resume that includes Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie and Seemeu, he is no stranger to awards and accolades. Neither is Lingenfelder, who is currently resident musical director for the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, and has worked on just about every stage musical in the country over the past however long. Like, forever.
Our hero adores Boy George, celebrated in a joyful song and dance which opens the movie. Then the inevitable happens: Johan gets his call-up papers for his national service in the white army.
You’d have to have been alive for a certain number of years to understand the full impact this had on the generations of the time. Whether you remember, or this is your first time experiencing it, it cannot fail to move you when you see the pale, skinny teenagers who were thrust into a war they did not understand.
Johan can sing like a bird, and he finds himself in the Kanaries (Canaries), the army choir. Sure, this post didn’t automatically include border service but it was still the army, with all the same training and brutality. The inextricable link between God and country is further applied to Johan’s tenderness, otherness, and awakening sexuality; his agonies are masterfully illustrated through Lingenfelder’s use of music throughout.
Said Gary Goldstein of the LA Times, “How Johan navigates this tricky territory is handled with warmth, authenticity and backbone in the first-rate script.”
Kanarie is a multi-faceted and poignant representation of the era, as well as Johan’s painful metamorphosis.