Kanarie takes place in 1985 (though it started in 1984) and follows Johan (Schalk Bezuidenhout) and his time in the South African Defence Force Choir. As a closeted gay man in Apartheid-era South Africa, Johan feels conflicted about his mandatory two-year service. It is not just his lifestyle that he fears, but also the dichotomy of serving the military and the church at the same time.
Johan finds several friends in the corp, including the talkative Ludolf (Germandt Geldenhuys). Then there is Wolfgang (Hannes Otto), whom Johan begins to fall in love with during their time together. Is Wolfgang receptive to his advances? What will happen if the commanding officers discover their tryst?
“…Wolfgang, whom Johan begins to fall in love with during their time together…What will happen if the commanding officers discover their tryst?”
The opening scene of Kanarie sees two school friends make Johan over with makeup while he’s wearing a wedding dress in an attempt to look like Boy George. The girls than dare him to walk down the street like that. After some reluctance, he agrees, and as the friends start the trek, they break out into a song and dance number over the opening title sequence. If this sounds a bit like the opening of the Shakespearean-influenced Get Over It, I had that same thought. The camera dollying backward and the way the group gets larger as random neighbors who are on the street join in are unmistakably from that 18-year-old movie. But, who in the heck remembers that slight yet charming musical aside from me?
Kanarie’s story hits a large number of cliches. While they don’t trip up the movie exactly, there is a feeling of been there, seen it that settles in during the first half of the film. However, the heart of writer-director Christiaan Olwagen’s film, which is co-written by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, lays in its strong sense of character. Johan is a very well defined and engaging lead; helped immeasurably by Bezuidenhout’s confident, raw performance. The way the filmmakers steadily build Johan’s inner turmoil then unleash it in a show-stopping dance number is surprisingly dramatic.
“… the heart of writer-director Christiaan Olwagen’s film, which is co-written by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, lays in its strong sense of character.”
Ludolf’s happy to see anyone and loves to chat with them about whatever. While it sounds like it may be annoying, Geldenhuys finds the right balance of pluck and genuine sympathy to make the character work. Wolfgang is a bit less complicated but still very intelligently written, and the subtlety Hannes Otto brings to the role works well. Even the Reverend Engelbrecht shows layers, as a late in the game sequence fantastical proves. Jacques Bessneger plays that moment in a small way, knowing that intimacy will go further than trying to play a big moment broadly.
Of course, due to its setting, the film does take a long look at Apartheid. Sadly, this is the biggest letdown of the movie. There is a frank conversation wherein a lady simply asks Engelbrecht and the choir if they represent the church or the military/ government. She then heavy-handedly discusses how this war they are a part of is to oppress an entire race of people and how that is wrong. It is an oddly clunky moment in a film whose dialogue is much more refined and intelligent.
Kanarie tackles issues that are still sensitive in South Africa head on, which is commendable. While there are cliched moments and the odd didactic part, the film overcomes these issues thanks to strong characterizations and great performances.
Kanarie (2019) Directed by Christiaan Olwagen. Written by Christiaan Olwagen, Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. Starring Schalk Bezuidenhout, Germandt Geldenhuys, Hannes Otto, Jacques Bessneger.
8 out of 10 Choirs