“Kanarie” – an inside look at the choir boys within the South African military
Every once in a while comes a film that is filled with so much joy, human connection, and emotional turmoil, you know that as long as it sticks the landing (i.e. has a good conclusion), it is a masterpiece. Christiaan Olwagen’s film, Kanarie, depicts the experiences of the “canaries” or men’s choir stationed in the South African army during apartheid in 1985, and it somehow plays like a more queer positive first half of Full Metal Jacket crossed with a musical.
Schalk Bezhuidenhout as Johan and Hannes Otto as Wolfgang have such wonderful chemistry as new recruits to the choir who share a passion for “devil’s music,” including Boy George’s songs (the opening number set to “Small Town Boy” is not to be missed). Germandt Geldenhuys as Ludolf, a chubby recruit with his heart on his sleeve, and Jacques Bessenger, as a potentially understanding Chaplain, turn in excellent supporting performances as well.
The Commanding Officers: Beer Adriaanse, Gérard Rudolf, and Jacques Bessenger
Note how shots like this one are similar to shots from Full Metal Jacket.
Despite the film being nearly all-white, it is reflective of the sheltered position the army recruits would have been in – only touring to other military outposts to perform concerts and staying in the homes of ardent supporters – while only seeing hints of unrest and unease about how people of colour were being treated. A quick montage of the racial violence that was enduring in South Africa at this time is symbolic both of the shocking cruelty that was demonstrated, but of also the tendency of bystanders to look the other way. As a character questions later, the boys need to decide who they serve: God or the military (or is there a third option?).
Bezhuidenhout needs to be given some credit here for his ability to provide nuance to his many emotions, including all those related to pursuing a seemingly impossible love, and having to serve the sometimes conflicting masters of the military and God. The Canaries seem to be comprised of mostly momma’s boys (as they talk about their mothers quite often), but a larger cage to be oneself in is still a cage. As Johan, Bezhuidenhout conveys the yearning for acceptance, belonging and security with such a fierce bravery that one cannot look away – his successes are yours, and his failures are so real. His happiness as he discovers his love for music is contagious – even for a deaf viewer who had no idea what he was talking about (but now wants to find out more).
Schalk Bezhuidenhout as Johan, a dearly earnest young man.
For a historical adventure that has a timeless quality, check this one out. In Afrikaans with English Subtitles.
It is currently available on Canadian iTunes for $4.99 to rent and $9.99 to purchase. I have done both.
About the Author
Michael McNeely law student graduate, entertainment and accessibility critic; filmmaker; and aspiring actor. He enjoys meaningful representations of LGBT folks and those with disabilities in the popular media, and is waiting for the day where nuance, instead of stereotype and prejudice, is the norm. Michael is deaf-blind, meaning that he enjoys the presence of subtitles and other accessibility features.