1985 apartheid South Africa is an unlikely setting for a coming-of-age movie, especially when it centers around a young man discovering his homosexuality. But that is precisely why writer-director, Christiaan Olwagen, and co-writer, Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, made CANARY – to challenge their home country with a trope that they are not frequently exposed to. In a world where religion and the patriarchy are so ingrained that there is no room for self-love and acceptance, we witness how Johan Niemand (Schalk Bezuidenhout) struggles to embrace his sexuality through a militant lens.
After breaking out into dance in the street in a wedding dress to Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy (yes, this was an amazing opening sequence), Johan’s euphoria is abruptly cut down to a reality check when he dances all the way into his reverend’s car. Shortly after, Johan gets news that he has been accepted into the South African Defense Force Choir and Concert Group: The Canaries. Though this is a successful dodge from the frontlines of battle, Johan is in for anything but an easy ride. In the exact way Harry met Ron, Johan is introduced to the flamboyant and larger-than-life, Ludolf Otterman (Germandt Geldenhuys). Upon being exposed to someone so unapologetic about who he is, we witness Johan shrink into his insecurities and suppress his inner Boy George. Ludolf might have exposed Johan to what it means to accept yourself, but it is Wolfgang Müller (Hannes Otto) who confronts him. Through the shared love of new wave British music, Wolfgang and Johan fall in love. Where the former is in a comfortable bliss, the latter is fighting an internal battle that bubbles up into rage.
Being so intimately close to something you were told was sinful your entire life is incredibly confusing, especially when caged into an extreme setting of the society that told you everything you are is wrong. Though Ludolf and Wolfgang both “suffer” the same “malady”, they are almost too close to the situation to give Johan any true insight or guidance. It is the unlikely adult figureheads in Johan’s life that plant the seeds for change. The charming and almost tragic Arlene Louw (Anna-Mart van der Merwe) shares Johan’s love for clothing design and fashion. She literally puts one of her dresses on Johan and places him in front of a mirror and tells him that the biggest bully of all is staring right back at him. But the biggest advocate for acceptance is his sympathetic and tender choir leader, Reverend Engelbrecht (Jacques Bessenger). The polar opposite of the higher-up Reverend Koch (Gérard Rudolf), Engelbrecht wants the boys in his choir to genuinely connect with who they are and bring it out in song. But it is the climactic scene of Johan’s showdown with his conflicting principals that make Engelbrecht his ultimate Jiminy Cricket. After admitting to Engelbrecht that he is gay and he is horrified of the world’s hatred of homosexuals, Engelbrecht tries to reframe his thinking. He asks Johan who he is truly trying to get acceptance from? And is that acceptance worth sacrificing everything?
Olwagen breaks up the stringent black-and-white tone of society with musical dance sequences that allow Johan to truly express, and possibly accept himself. Though CANARY is classified as a “coming-of-age musical war drama”, I see it more as a “coming-of-age war drama with a heavy emphasis on music”. The musical sequences are few in between and come across more like 80’s music videos than anything else. Using these sequences as a stylistic approach was a stroke of genius, however, as they give us the most honest insight into who Johan is. They are, after all, the only time that Johan can truly express how he is feeling during a time where that expression can be perilous.
In an attempt to further capture the humanity behind his characters, Olwagen puts members of society in front of the camera as if they are waiting for their photo to be taken. But an interesting thing happens when you put a video camera in front of a still-posed person- the person is stripped down until we are just staring into their uncomfortable and exposed soul. This method helps connect everyone together, regardless of their principals and philosophies, and really makes it feel like we are in this mad struggle of self-acceptance together.
CANARY is actually heavily based on the real experiences of Lingenfelder’s life. Upon learning about his experience with the Canaries, Olwagen jumped on the symbolism and its potential for a powerful movie. CANARY brings to mind “canary in the coal mine” or Maya Angelou’s “the caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still”, and Olwagen sees to making these metaphors come through.
Through the unforgiving and blunt lens of Afrikaans society, CANARY feels like it is trying to wrestle with its protagonist and almost drag him to the other side. The pain and frustration are palpable as Johan tries to reorient himself. CANARY reads like the memoir it is and Olwagen’s stylistic edge truly makes CANARY stand out from other queer coming-out movies. Most of all, this isn’t just a movie about someone trying to come out to society, it is about accepting yourself, despite your journey, and realizing that you had the key to the cage all along.