U-Carmen eKhayelitsha Review
A quick IMDB search turns up more than 40 versions of Carmen that have been committed to celluloid. Mainly filmed versions of the opera, this doesn’t include the many adaptations: Carmen Jones, The Campus Carmen, Carmen of the Klondike, and Carmen: A Hip Hopera starring Beyonce Knowles among others! So U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha is in interesting company: a fairly straight adaptation of Bizet’s opera, it shifts the action to Khayelitsha, the shanty town outside Cape Town, and to present day, post-apartheid South Africa.
Carmen (Malefane) works as a cigarette girl in a small factory. Seductive and fiercely independent, Carmen delights in tormenting the men of Kayelitsha, until she meets her match in Jongikhaya (Tshoni), a local police officer, when he is called in to break up a brawl at the factory. Carmen is piqued by his indifference, and when he arrests her uses all her flirtatious whiles to seduce him and escape. Losing his job in the police, Jongikhaya, desperate to impress Carmen, gets involved with her gangster friends and helps with a smuggling job, but Carmen is rapidly losing interest in him – her mind is on other lovers, especially Lulamile Nkomo (Sidloyi), a local singer made good. Jongikhaya, desperately jealous, is driven to despair.
So far, so what? What makes this version of Carmen stand out from any of the many others?
Well, first there’s the setting: by moving Carmen to the Cape slums, director Dornford-May brings an immediate freshness to the story. Bizet set his opera in the slums of Seville; the protagonists are on the edge of society. Carmen is a gypsy, a free spirit, not bound by convention. The South African shantytown has a similar colour and liveliness amidst the violence, poverty and squalor; the women always well-dressed in bright colours, the sense that life is cheap, so grab what you can, when you can. It’s similar to Baz Lurhman’s Romeo & Juliet in bringing a very modern vibrancy to an old story.
The music cleverly blends traditional Xhosa songs with Bizet’s original music; anyone who has been to Southern Africa will know how South Africans sing and hum almost constantly, so the operatic conceit is actually more believable in this context. The cast, all members of lyric theatre company Dimpho Di Kophane, are generally good though the standout performance is from Pauline Malefane in the title role. Carmen is like a force of nature, unstoppable, and Malefane is very attractive and sensual though certainly fits the Precious Ramotswe ideal of a traditionally built lady. It’s very pleasing to see a woman in a film portrayed as a object of desire who isn’t stick thin with perky breasts.
The South African setting also provides some nice, telling visuals – cows crossing a pedestrian bridge being a standout moment contrasting the white, 1st world infrastructure and the world of the township. There are occasional technical problems, especially with the sound, but you can imagine some of the difficulties they’d have had filming on location.
U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (deservedly) won the Golden Bear at Berlin 2005. Why it has taken so long to reach these shores I’m not sure. And its a Nando’s film production. Fabulous.
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