With a growing number of queer topics and motion pictures emerging in South African filmmaking, the status quo is being increasingly questioned and dismantled. This edition of Outfest gets even more political with its latest addition, Kanarie, which tackles a variety of controversial subjects, from blind patriotism to the effects of religious dogma on sexuality and healthy self-expression. Christiaan Olwagen’s coming-of-age drama successfully rehashes an age-old LGBTQ trope and turns it around into an earnest, warm, and at times heart-wrenching masterpiece about the human condition, marginalization and the overpowering need for acceptance.
Johan Niemand (Schalk Bezuidenhout) is an eighteen-year-old man who is expected for military service during the 1980s. After auditioning, he is accepted in the South African Defence Force Choir as a fellow “Canary” (part of the soldiers’ travelling choir). Once he is there he is taken aback by the vitriol and discrimination within the community. He also meets another choir member named Wolfgang (Hannes Otto) who makes him feel less alone. The two spend a lot of time together and grow closer in what seems to be something more intimate than a friendship. Eventually, they fall for each other. But this is not a relieving, joyous moment for Johan, who struggles with confusion, guilt and self-loathing due to his sexual orientation. This experience also opens the young man’s eyes to the bigotry and blatant gay animosity that is rampant within the military.
The entire film is infused with lightheartedness and musical undertones, depicting art as a transformative force that helps the individual transcend bias and prejudice, as well as to see their own shortcomings more clearly. Which is precisely why there is conflict arising between the choir members and the commanding officers who want to censor ideas and voices that go against their political or personal beliefs. A recurrent theme is this clash between the old hierarchical, rigid norms and a newly surfaced openness that seeks to be inclusive, abhors injustice and wants to reward and encourage individuality instead of restricting it.
Although the slow-burning plot does not necessarily culminate or shock with some groundbreaking turning point or impactful revelation, the motion picture is filled with snippets of wisdom and intense, but silent discoveries. The main character uses music and his fondness of it to turn inward and shed light on some of his ingrained beliefs. During this process he manages to unearth several damaging or self-destructive perspectives that he had been indoctrinated with. He begins to question the validity of his ardent patriotism and the legitimacy of the songs they are taught to sing in the context of the military’s internal turmoil and its oppressive force. He observes more and more that this power is misguidedly used to enforce hatred, bigotry and racial segregation, but also that there is a violent desire to keep people from doubting the system and revolting against it. This becomes especially clear to Johan in his heated discussion with his superior officer. Johan directs a choir performance of Culture Club’s Romance Revisited, only to be interrupted by Reverend Koch, who calls it an “amoral, subversive smut”.
Schalk Bezuidenhout’s performance is sublime and intimate, carrying the weight of the plot all throughout its progression and peaking during the film’s most heartwarming, memorable scenes. One such moment is the passive, but emotionally charged encounter between Johan and Wolfgang where the two apathetically share unkind words towards one another and the young man expresses that this newfound love has uprooted his entire identity. Bezuidenhout’s transformation from his comical, kooky persona to the withdrawn and deeply introspective Johan is also impressive. The viewer soon learns that the main character suffers from unrelenting shame, feelings of unworthiness and visceral self-hatred. His agonizing private discussion with Reverend Engelbrecht entrancingly depicts how far one will go in suppressing their individuality for the warmth and security of acceptance.
The peppy nature of Kanarie does not prevent it from exploring deep-rooted societal issues such as normalized homophobia within the military, group think, repressed anger and the harrowing experience of internalized shame. The conclusion that Olwagen’s riveting film ultimately leads to is that the only acceptance you need is from yourself. This powerful message is cleverly and gradually delivered to the audience through a sequence of unforgettable scenes and performances that do not “boom”, but rather discreetly and firmly uncover the importance of being compassionate towards yourself and others.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Christiaan Olwagen