By André Crous
Johan Niemand (literally, “John Nobody”) likes fashion, music and Boy George. But he lives in a small town in Christian-heavy apartheid-era South Africa, and it goes without saying that, for someone like him, the road ahead isn’t going to be easy. To make matters worse, we meet him fresh out of high school, just as he is called up to serve in the military.
A bit like its Pied Piper‒inspired opening credits sequence, Christiaan Olwagen’s Canary (Kanarie) is a flaming, mesmerising piece of work that viewers will have a hard time resisting. The film deftly navigates the minefield of recent South African history, littered as it is by racial segregation, religious supremacy and repressed sexuality. And it is the latter that features most prominently, although the film frequently chooses creative and insightful discussion over easy wins.
In that opening scene, two friends bribe Johan to walk down the road of their provincial and presumably conservative neighbourhood decked out in a big white wedding gown. We later find out he’s made a habit of doing whatever he can to earn money in order to buy LPs so that he can escape his surroundings, even just for a moment, by listening to his Walkman. It is a scene that seamlessly combines the fear of being different with the elation of imagining a world where you don’t have to fit in but others will join you in expressing yourself.
But expressing oneself in 1980s South Africa often meant being separated from one’s peers. Johan, played by Schalk Bezuidenhout (who, in what seems like another life entirely, is actually a moustachioed, curly-haired stand-up comic in his native South Africa), is conscripted just as South Africa is about to mark 20 years of ongoing conflict in neighbouring Namibia and Angola. War and manhood, then as now, are perceived as two sides of the same coin. Johan rightly assumes that his only way of surviving the dreaded “national service” is to be selected as a Kanarie – one of two dozen young men who form the South African Defence Force Choir and Concert group. To his utter relief, he makes it through.
Although slightly out of his comfort zone at first, he quickly bonds with two fellow Canaries: the camp but stout Ludolf (Germandt Geldenhuys) and blond, bespectacled fellow country boy, Wolfgang (Hannes Otto). They tease and support each other, particularly when they are verbally abused by their superiors.
One such superior is the young “Corporal Crunchie” (Beer Adriaanse), nicknamed for his copious consumption of the oat-based delicacy Ludolf’s mother packs for her son. Addressing the recruits as “ladies” is the mildest of the insults he hurls at them, which often include an array of ever more creative epithets associated with both male and female genitals. Loquacious and vulgar, the corporal is a slightly out-of-control version of Full Metal Jacket’s infamous Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and easily rises to the challenge of using words as weapons to emasculate his recruits, despite many of them having developed a thick skin after years of being bullied at school.
When the Kanaries go on tour and stay with host families, Johan and Wolfgang often share a room and grow ever closer, which gradually tears the soft-spoken Johan apart. Swinging between exhilaration and despair, he struggles to accept himself as he is convinced God will punish him for what he desires.
From the very first moments, Canary sets itself apart from the rest of the flock. The audacious decision to shoot scenes in single takes (or to give them the appearance of being shot as such) is both a blessing and a curse. Director of photography Chris Vermaak utilises his Steadicam to full effect to have conversations play out in a coherent, inescapable space. During Johan’s audition, the camera makes a seemingly impossible move as it appears to be drawn to the singing by passing through a table – the inverse of a similar shot in Citizen Kane.
However, while there is no question Olwagen gets to show off his talents as a director and the cast gets to flaunt their acting skills, the incredibly mobile camera can become distracting, if not downright repetitive as it pushes in or out on static action while panning and tracking on more mobile actions. The same is true of the recurring breaking of the fourth wall, which would have been more effective had it been used more judiciously.
By contrast, one of the most memorable shots is also one of the simplest: a single minutes-long close-up on Johan’s face that expresses everything we need to know and will strike a deep emotional chord with many a viewer, not unlike Ingmar Bergman’s similar approach to a rape scene in The Virgin Spring. Another devastating moment emerges out of the palpable tension of Johan and his sister trying but failing to address a serious topic as they sit shoulder to shoulder and the camera has nowhere to go.
Above all, Canary puts onscreen some of the best acting ever shown in an Afrikaans feature film. For once, the actors don’t sound like they belong on stage and, unlike almost every single Afrikaans television series or feature film out there, no scene opens with people laughing at a non-existent joke. They are immediately recognisable as characters fully rooted in and representative of the real world, with their conversations having the colour and texture to make them both layered and accessible.
Tackling nationalism, religion and sexuality in a single film and doing so without veering off into territory of self-congratulation or pontification is above most filmmakers’ pay grade, but Olwagen and fellow screenwriter Charl-Johan Lingenfelder stay close enough to Johan to allow us a sense of intimacy while pulling back far enough to take in his immediate context. He is the centre of attention in every single scene, and this first-person perspective, which includes many a music-video-style fantasy, boosts our empathy for him as he comes not only of age but of identity.
Christiaan Olwagen has made his material sing, and it’s as good a harmony as anything his characters belt out.
Viewed at the 2018 Cape Town International Film Market and Festival.
Country South Africa
Director(s) Christiaan Olwagen
Screenwriter(s) Christiaan Olwagen, Charl-Johan Lingenfelder
Directors of Photography Chris Vermaak
Running Time 120 minutes
Original title Kanarie
André Crous is a professional film critic and a member of FIPRESCI. He holds a French honour’s degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. His research examined the works of Francois Truffaut, Mikhail Kalatazov, Martin Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Winterbottom. He writes about movies in his blog, Celluloid Paradiso and lives in Prague, Czech Republic. | Read More ⟩