Queer in South Africa
“Kanarie” looks at several controversial subjects in South Africa including blind patriotism and the effects of religious dogma on sexuality and healthy self-expression. Christiaan Olwagen’s coming-of-age drama rehashes an age-old LGBTQ trope from a different angle and gives us an earnest, warm, and at times heart-wrenching film about the human condition, marginalization and the overpowering need for acceptance.
Johan Niemand (Schalk Bezuidenhout) is an eighteen-year-old man who is expected to do military service during the 1980s. After auditioning, he is accepted in the South African Defense Force Choir as a fellow “Canary” (part of the soldiers’ travelling choir). Once he is there he is overwhelmed 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 becomes more intimate than a friendship. Eventually, they fall for each other. But this is not a happy moment for Johan, who is struggling with confusion, guilt and self-loathing because of his sexuality. This experience also opens his eyes to the bigotry and blatant gay animosity that is rampant within the military.
The film is filled with lightheartedness and music letting us see art as a transformative force that helps the individual transcend bias and prejudice, as well as to see his 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 recurring theme is the clash between the old hierarchical, rigid norms and a newly surfaced openness that attempts to be inclusive, abhors injustice and wants to reward and encourage individuality instead of restricting it.
There is a lot of wisdom and intense, but silent discoveries here. Johan uses music and his fondness of it to turn inward and see 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 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 sees 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. 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. He carries the entire plot and therefore the film.
“Kanerie” explores deep-rooted societal issues such as normalized homophobia within the military, group think, repressed anger and the harrowing experience of internalized shame. The conclusion is that the only acceptance you need is from yourself. This is cleverly and gradually delivered to the audience through a sequence of unforgettable scenes and performances that discreetly and firmly uncover the importance of being compassionate towards yourself and others.
The film is remarkable insight into how gay men struggle with their sexuality in a country that is desperately holding on to its immoral past. Olwagen’s wonderfully entertaining tale however fills us with hope that love will in the very end conquer all.