The South African coming-of-age story Kanarie tells you everything you need to know about it in the first ten minutes. The year is 1984 and a young man named Johan (Schalk Bezuidenhout) stares directly into the camera, dressed in a white wedding dress and with bright and colorful makeup highlighting his eyes. Behind him, a pair of giggling girls put the finishing touches on it by draping the veil over his face. But Johan has critiques. He wanted Boy George makeup and this isn’t Boy George.
They dare him to strut down the street for 50 Rand and he takes them up on it. But as he struts down the street in a makeshift wedding dress, the tone suddenly changes and Johan is in the music video of his imagination. His outfit becomes an homage to Boy George and he begins dancing to “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat, complete with backup dancers.
It’s a perfect marriage of theme, visuals and sound. The lyrics are particularly insightful into Johan’s imagination, with lines like: “Mother will never understand why you had to leave / But the answers you seek will never be found at home / The love that you need will never be found at home.” This mix of fantasy and reality is abruptly interrupted by a honking car horn from a local reverend, who warns him he needs to change before his father gets home. And then the more distressing interruption: a letter conscripting him into the South African Army.
So he auditions to be part of the long-winded South African Defence Force Church Choir and Concert Group. the choir and band portion of the Army that people colloquially refer to as The Canaries, that only accepts 23 people from the country each year. He gets in, though, and we cut to 1985 with Johan, freshly buzzed, on a train to Valhalla, the on-the-nose Air Force Based where he meets a fellow Canary named Ludolf Otterman (Germandt Geldenhuys). Ludolf is the exact opposite of Johan.
While Johan is quiet, tall and thin and wants to fade into the background, Ludolf is chubby, loud and exuberant and is so comfortable in his own body, that he doesn’t hide his very fey and effeminate hand gestures or body language. He’s the kind of person who says, “slap me silly with a soggy pawpaw!” He’s also the kind of guy whose mother packed one of his suitcases full of treats and foods and lunch.
The rest of the movie is told in sections, highlighted with a title card, that covers Johan’s life in the first year of basic training, touring, singing and trying to discover himself. Along the way, he meets another Canary named Wolfgang Müller (Hannes Otto), a cute nerdy guy who bonds with Johan over pictures Johan hides in his bible of Boy George. Their friendship is furtive, even as it blossoms into something deeper. But Johan has a lot of inner demons he must work through.
You see there are two sides of Johan. His inner gay and feminine self that is desperate to be free. To be able to dance and wear makeup and not have to worry about his personal safety or being called a fag. Then there’s the outside. Introverted, trying to hide in the background and not make waves. Who sees the military as a test he must try to pass through as quickly and silently as possible. These two are at odds with each other, often to the detriment of Johan. As much as he wants to love Wolfgang and be public about it, after a sexual tryst, he feels deep shame and flees. There’s so much inner turmoil roiling inside him.
What’s fantastic, though, is that writers Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and Christiaan Olwagen (also the director) juxtaposes this inner turmoil with the greater problems facing South Africa in the 80s. It’s the time of the Border Wars, where mostly white South Africans go to war to “protect” their borders. It’s the rumblings of a revolution happening, both inside Johan and inside South Africa.
But also, there’s the question of religion and war. The Canaries are a religious component to the South African Army, lead by a Reverend. And Johan used his ideologies of nation and Christianity to get into the singing group. But as they tour South Africa, they are questioned by some of their hosts about how can they reconcile their religion with war. The same could be asked of the two sides to Johan.
So what is Kanarie? It’s a drama. A musical. A war movie. But it’s all framed from the perspective of the conflicted Johan. It doesn’t really dive too far into the politics and implied racism of the wars in South Africa, but that’s because it smartly uses it as a mirror to examine a queer person, trying to decide how to exist in a world that hates him.
Two very potent scenes come to mind. The first is when Johan talks about how kids would taunt him when he was younger, because he looked feminine. And so he hid from the world, surrounding himself with music. So while the world around him is full of hate, when his headphones are on, he’s transported to a fantasy world where he can be just as feminine and powerful as Boy George. Not that the movie leaves Boy George off the hook; instead, Johan wishes that he would just say he was gay so that queer boys like Johan had someone to look up to. Someone out and proud to give them strength.
The second scene is set at one of the hosts that welcome the Canaries into their home on their tours. Arlene (Anna-Mart van der Merwe) a woman who dreamed of fashion before the world crushed it, tells Johan: “Promise me one thing. As soon as your cage door opens you fly away. Away from this Godforsaken country with all its…hate and its bullies. All its fucking bullies. Promise me.” It’s an intensely passionate scene where someone sees Johan…truly sees him for the first time.
The third act kind of gets a little overwrought, unfortunately. The internal conflict gets a little too wacky and on-the-nose and kind of muddles the story after the first two fantastic acts. But it manages to get it together for a hopeful conclusion that hints that maybe Johan will be able to fly away and live where people don’t really wanna hurt him.