In Pride Month, a look at Kanarie, a South African coming-of-age (and coming-out) drama

Baradwaj Rangan

Jun 13, 2019 12:37:36 IST

Among other things, Christiaan Olwagen’s South African drama Kanarie is about the importance of role models. The people around us — family, friends, teachers — they’re all good. But it’s something else when a public figure, especially one you adore, legitimises what you are. Jo adores Boy George, the Culture Club frontman whose androgynous looks have already led to much speculation about his sexuality. But it’s 1985, and the singer is still in the closet. One evening, when Johan is playing the piano, trying to sing Culture Club’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me, Wolfgang comes by and joins him. This is the boy Johan has shared a kiss with, one that was rudely interrupted by a knock on the door. But that kiss has sown doubts in Johan’s mind.

In Pride Month, a look at Kanarie, a South African coming-of-age (and coming-out) drama

A still from Kanarie

Johan tells Wolfgang that the first time he saw a picture of Boy George, the heading read: “Effeminate men - is this the future?” He recalls the time at school when his friend Gavin brought a tape recorder and they used to keep playing the song, Boy Boy (I’m the Boy). Johan was obsessed. He started collecting everything: articles, interviews, reviews, pictures, everything. Wolfgang asks, “Why specifically him?” Johan, first, says he doesn’t know. Then he says, “Because I hoped that somewhere he’d just admit that… that…” Finally, he finds the courage to say the words, “That he’s gay. That he likes men, and that Jon Moss [the group’s drummer] is his boyfriend. I just thought that if he admitted it, it will somehow make it okay.” But that, of course, did not happen at the time. In one of his most famous interviews, Boy George said: “I prefer a nice cup of tea to sex.”

Johan and Wolfgang met when they were enlisted in the army – not to fight, but as part of the South African Defence Force Church Choir and Concert Group (aka Kanaries). Members of this group go around the country and sing for troops, which causes its own kind of discrimination from soldiers on active duty. But even otherwise, Kanaries is a strange entity. As Johan says, “We deliver a message of hope to those who have loved ones in the army, by proclaiming the word of God.” Therein lies a contradiction. This group does the work of the Church, but it belongs to the pro-Apartheid Army, which is fighting to keep whites in power. So, on the surface, Kanarie is about Johan figuring life out. (Sample line: “I don’t know who or what I am.”) It’s a typical coming-of-age story.

It’s also a coming-out story. Johan’s parents are very conservative, and so is the South African neighbourhood he grew up in. When he was in school, kids used to ride their bikes past his home and ring their bike bells repeatedly – for no reason but to bully him. They knew he was inside. They knew he was weird. Note the word Johan uses: weird (as opposed to “gay”). He says, “I just wanted to make the bells stop ringing. So for an entire autumn, I sold acorns to the farmers for pigswill, and that paid for my Sony headphones.” Like many gay teens, he decided to ignore the problem instead of tackling it. He decided to drown it out using music. Boy George’s music.

"What makes Kanarie different is the musical backdrop, which sometimes leads to stylised sequences right out of a pop video."

"What makes Kanarie different is the musical backdrop, which sometimes leads to stylised sequences right out of a pop video."

I can’t say the film holds many surprises, but its power lies in its simplicity. What makes Kanarie different is the musical backdrop, which sometimes leads to stylised sequences right out of a pop video. It’s also impressive that the film samples different flavours of “being different”. It’s not just Johan who has a problem, due to his gayness. The effeminate Ludolf, who is overweight, is constantly picked on by fellow-Kanaries because he can’t run as fast as them and they end up failing physical exams. But then, their vocal coach points out that they can’t do what Ludolf does: read sheet music, or hit an A note. The lesson is basic, but the way it plays out isn’t.

There’s a powerful scene where Johan attempts to come out to his sister, but when he gets the feeling she won’t approve, he stops. Kanarie is about how your people, your surroundings, or even your books shape you. Johan’s dictionary defines homosexuality as “a perverse, unnatural attraction to a person of the same gender”. Johan’s Bible says, “If a man lies with a man, as with a woman, both have committed an abomination. They are to be put to death. They deserve to die.” Johan says, “I am tired of feeling like shit about who I am and what I like”. I wanted to tell him to listen to a song by another androgynous pop star. In Man in the Mirror, Michael Jackson sings: I’m starting with the man in the mirror / I’m asking him to change his ways / And no message could have been any clearer / If you want to make the world a better place / Take a look at yourself, and then make a change. Forget liking Wolfgang, or having his friends and family like him – Johan, first, has to learn to like himself.

Updated Date: Jun 13, 2019 12:37:36 IST