There are a lot of Coming of Age or Coming Out stories out there, but none quite like Kanarie, a local musical war drama, set in 1985, during the height of the Apartheid Final Onslaught, which has been causing a buzz both locally and internationally.
The absurdity of Apartheid produced many queer (in the traditional sense of the word) institutions, one of them being the South African Defence Force Church Choir and Concert Group also known as the “Canaries”. It was essentially a propaganda tool employed by the besieged government of the time to promote the conservative and exclusionary values of the Volk. But to many sensitive, sexually confused young white conscripts to a pointless war, the Canaries seemed to be a refuge of sorts. The protagonist of the film, small-town boy Johan Niemand, is one such young man, brilliantly portrayed by Schalk Bezeuidenhout, almost unrecognisable out of his usual guise as a stand-up comedian. As a bullied teenager his love of British New Wave music and particularly his obsession for Boy George, help him cope with the strictures of church and state. On turning eighteen, his worst nightmare comes true…Johan’s military call up papers arrive. He auditions for the Canaries, believing that the choir will be get out of jail card from participating in the bush war. But he is quickly and rudely brought to reality. The choir members still have to undergo military training, and after hours they have to rehearse. They live under constant abuse and bullying from the other recruits and their commanders. Then the penny drops for Johan when he finally understands the role he plays in the oppression and injustice around him.
On tour, Johan develops feelings for a fellow Canary and he starts to question everything he knows about himself and his world; his religion, his sense of patriotism, sexuality and the realities and truth of Apartheid South Africa. He finally understands why the caged bird sings. One of the most poignant scenes in the film, Johan is made to promise that “as soon as your cage opens, you fly away from this godforsaken country with all its sirs and madams, and rules and regulations and all its hate and bullying”
Kanarie exposes a hidden story within the traditional Apartheid propaganda machine. Some of the toxic masculinity which is still prevalent in our society can be traced back to the conscription of young white men. Nobody wants to talk about it. But ultimately Kanarie is an uplifting film about finding individuality in a world of oppression and uniformity. Johan learns how through hardship, camaraderie, first love, and the liberating freedom of music, the true self can be discovered.
Kanarie made its debut overseas and has been the official Selection at this year’s Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival, OutFest in Los Angeles, the TWIST Seattle Queer Film Festival, the Image Out Rochester LGBT Film Festival and the Out on Film Atlanta LGBT Film Festival.
Written by Christiaan Olwagen & Charl-Johan Lingenfelder
Directed by Christiaan Olwagen
Musical Composition: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder
Kanarie goes on national release on Friday 19th October. In Afrikaans with English sub-titles.