A self-described ‘coming-of-age musical war drama’ (try saying that five times fast), Canary (Kanarie) is a subversively charming genre-mash that speaks to a younger generation disillusioned by conflict and government. Set in South Africa, 1985, one young man’s conscription into the army finds him coming to terms with the horrors of Apartheid, as well as his own sexuality – neither of which he is prepared to face.
18-year-old Johan Niemand (Schalk Bezuidenhout) comes from a small town where folks don’t so much appreciate his flamboyant affinity for Boy George. When he is called upon to undertake his compulsory service with the South African Defence Force, Johan auditions for the military church choir – also known as the Canaries. The pacifist Johan sees his musical virtuosity as a way out of life on the front lines, but he soon learns that complicity in a racist war goes beyond holding a gun in his hands. At the same time, his friendship with his fellow Canaries and burgeoning romance with the charismatic Wolfgang (Hannes Otto) force Johan to come to terms with the reality of embracing his identity under a brutal regime that would stamp out any trace of individuality in its hyper-masculine ranks.
Director Christiaan Olwagen brings a compelling flair to a complex subject, though my only gripe is that Canary is not really a musical – in the traditional sense of the word, anyway. The narrative kicks off with a fantasy musical sequence that it never really follows up on – Johan escapes his conventional home life by transforming into his musical idols and lip-syncing his way through the suburbs. I expected this to set the standard for the rest of the film, but we only experience this imaginary musical catharsis a couple of other times. Emphasis instead is placed on the comparatively conservative musical performances by the church choir, which are beautiful, but don’t quite allow for the same sense of escapism.
Nevertheless, Canary juggles its genre conventions without feeling half-baked; it’s not a history lesson in South African Apartheid, but uses its young, impressionable characters to provoke thought on nationalism and responsibility for one’s actions in the midst of conflict. Against the backdrop of war, we also explore the deep-seated homophobia peddled by the military – the Canaries, in particular, are targeted for their supposed effeminacy by the cruel Corporal, a caricature of toxic masculinity. Schalk Bezuidenhout’s captivating performance reaches a powerful climax as Johan is pushed to the edge, rejecting both his new friends and the attraction he knows he should not have.
Canary is an impressive feat in that it is not afraid to be unconventional; in both style and substance it opposes the very oppressive regimes it depicts, instead focusing on the liberation that comes with self-expression.
Canary is released on Digital on June 18th
by Megan Wilson
Megan Wilson is a northerner and recent graduate of Film Studies at King’s College London. She is passionate about cats, old musicals, and turtleneck sweaters, but is not, in fact, an 80-year-old man. Her favourite films include Carol, Moonlight, Singin’ in the Rain, and Matilda. Find her on Twitter: @bertmacklln