Welcome to Khayelitsha
Reviewed By Shaun Hutchinson
U-Carmen eKhayelitsha will probably attract two types of audience. Opera lovers and those wanting to see a slice of South African life. Director Mark Dornford-May’s first film should satisfy both.
The original Carmen, by Georges Bizet and set in Seville, Spain, is probably the most performed opera in the world.
The story follows the downfall of the vivacious and passionate Carmen – a woman who refuses to fulfil the role men want for her.
First performed in Paris at the end of the 19th century, an updated film version from the 1950s starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge, moved the action to Black America.
This latest screen version, which won the Golden Bear Trophy for the Best Film award at the 2005 Berlin International Festival is set in present day Khayelitsha - one of South Africa’s largest townships and 20 miles outside of Cape Town.
It's sung and spoken in Xhosa, one of the country’s 11 official languages. Seeing the sights, sounds and styles of the township’s people together with the unfolding story of love, jealousy, revenge, desire and madness gives the film an intriguing quality.
Bizet’s Carmen score, fused with superb traditional South African songs, gives the film a unique quality combining Xhosa culture with European opera.
The cast is made up of South African Theatre Company Dimpho Di Kopane (DDK for short) – which means "combined talents".
Comprising 40 actors and singers the company has achieved international acclaim since its formation in 2000 following over 2000 auditions held throughout rural and urban South Africa. And it’s the combined talents of DDK which make this movie.
Whilst Pauline Malefane is outstanding in the lead role, the performances of the ensemble also bring passion, commitment and zest to the movie. The people and vibrant life of the township provide a faithful but fresh backdrop for the rhythms and melodies that make Carmen so popular.
Converting opera into an entirely different medium and language must have been a challenging task. But both Andiswa Kedama who plays Amanda and Pauline Malefane who plays Carmen rose to the challenge with success.
This production, which accurately portrays township life, is also true to Bizet’s original and will satisfy traditionalists. The energy and heat of Khayelitsha is a fresh setting for this classic story of love and obsession.
Giulio Biccari’s innovative cinematography gives a visually stunning depiction of this part of South Africa, which has the dramatic Table Mountains as the backdrop to the cramped, but lively, township where the scars of apartheid are still fresh.
U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is a skilful introduction to opera and picture of the life of South Africa’s townships.
For opera lovers it is a great spectacle; for neophytes it may be difficult to absorb at first – but that is eased by the sheer quality and depth of performances and the passionate way in which the songs/arias are performed.
Sometimes sombre and moving, but always entertaining, for those who know nothing about opera this is a great place to start.
U-Carmen eKhayelitsha [120 mins]
Director - Mark Dornford-May
Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn London NW6
Shaun Hutchison is The New Black Magazine's food and theatre critic.
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