The ‘canaries’ are the white male members of the South African Defence Corps Church Choir and Concert Group- a bunch of 18 and 19-year-olds who have a bewildering equal love for God and the Army.
IT’S an unusual subject for a gay-themed musical film set in the turbulent period of 1984/5 apartheid and at a time of the prolonged border war.
It’s also the era of Depeche Mode, Boy George, Culture Club, Ziggy and many Moreno– icons.
So our hero Johanes, played in a beautifully wistful far-away style by Schalk Bezuidenhout, finds himself at Valhalla Air Force Base with 22 other young men, subjected to a brutal corporal and his harsh punishment regime. It’s a kind of cross between The History Boys and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, and the amazing thing is that it works on all sorts of levels. Johanes salvation is his obsession with Boy George, and his disappointment that his hero hasn’t ‘come out’.
Mostly naturalistic, it has occasional excursions into a kind of pop music video style, which for me didn’t come often enough. Johanes is a shy boy on the periphery of the group, overshadowed by the plump Ludolf played for all the laughs he can get by Germandt Geldenhuys.
When Ludolf is repeatedly bullied by both staff and other choristers, Johanes is his staunch defender. But the real plot development is the growing affection between Johanes and his room-mate, the brilliant pianist Wolfgang, played in a sensitive coming of age way by Hannes Otto.
It is of course a forbidden kind of love and predictably Johanes is torn between his Christianity and desire to be ‘accepted’ and a growing realisation of his gay nature.
As he starts the film cruising down his hometown Main Street in wedding dress and veil, we the audience have no doubt of his sexuality.
But there’s a touching kind of sensitivity in his physical fumbling with Wolfgang.
When the choristers are confronted with criticism from a left-wing anti-apartheid supporter at a concert, they have no real answer – it’s as if they had not thought about the real brutality of 1980’s South Africa.
Only when they go to sing for the troops on the front line of the border war does some sense of reality dawn and then not for long.
Full of original songs by co-writer Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, the film poses many weighty questions about right and wrong, truth and falsehoods, honesty and being closeted.
Director and co-writer Christiaan Olwagen gets top-class performance from his largely young cast and they are nowhere better than when singing in close harmony.
It’s an uplifting film that could well have a sequel as we find out about Johanes and Wolfgang’s future fate.
Kanarie (Canary) is distributed by Pecadillo Pictures.
Review by Brian Butler