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  • TBC
  • 2005
  • 120 mins

U-Carmen E-Khayelitsha

U-Carmen E-Khayelitsha


Bizet's opera is transported to a post-apartheid South African township. The extraordinary Pauline Malefane stars as Carmen


Carmen is an adaptable heroine. Beginning life in a novella by Prosper Mérimée, Seville's fieriest gypsy found her true voice in Georges Bizet's 1875 opera, said to be the most performed in the world.

Her story has since been told in countless films, from the early silent versions by Cecil B DeMille (1915) and Ernst Lubitsch (1918), to the full-blown operatic extravaganzas of Herbert von Karajan (1967) and Francesco Rosi (1984). Along the way she has proved particularly accommodating to updates and allegory, becoming an African-American in Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones (1954), a modern-day professional flamenco dancer in Carlos Saura's Carmen (1983), and even a gun-toting terrorist in Jean-Luc Godard's Prénom Carmen (1983). Yet it is in Mark Dornford-May's U-Carmen E-Khayelitsha that she has undergone what is arguably her most radical transformation.

Here Carmen (Malefane) is a streetwise factory worker in the sprawling South African township of Khayelitsha, near Cape Town. Don José has become Jongikhaya (Tshoni), a police sergeant with devout, if conflicted, Christian values. The toreador Escamillo is now Lulamile Nkomo (Sidloyi), a world-renowned opera singer returning for the first time to his hometown - even if the screenplay manages to find for him an ingenious local equivalent to Spanish bullfighting. Cars and condoms, televisions and mobile phones form the modernised background to the film's events, and while Bizet's familiar score remains, it is set alongside more traditional African song and dance, with the libretto itself translated into the rhythmic clicks of Xhosa. Despite these changes, the original plot remains intact, leaving little doubt that when in Khayelitsha, Carmen is still right at home.

Near the beginning of U-Carmen E-Khayelitsha, Jongikhaya's commander Captain Gantana (Gantana) is heard to remark, "We're really past apartheid now" - and sure enough, while Carmen may have her fair share of both passionate sensuality and tragic fatalism, the characteristic that most strongly defines her, in all her irrepressible insistence on doing exactly as she pleases, is freedom itself. "Free I was born", she sings, "and free is how I'll die", making her a fitting heroine for the new South Africa.

The country's rapid emergence from the apartheid-era is most obviously symbolised by the history (told in flashback) of Lulamile Nkomo: secretly fostered after police shot his black activist parents, then trained as a singer in the New York School of Music, and now at last free to perform in his own home. It is no coincidence that the piece Lulamile has come to perform is the toreador's song from Bizet's 'Carmen', nor that the choir supporting him comprises Carmen and her co-workers from Khayelitsha's cigarette factory (themselves all played by genuine local talent).

The implication is that, like Lucamile's similar show, Dornford-May's directorial debut is itself a measure of how far South Africa has come, despite all the crime, poverty and misery. For U-Carmen E-Khayelitsha realises the artistic potential of a previously anonymous shantytown, putting Khayelitsha on the international map (and garnering in the process the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival).

Malefane, who is herself a native of Khayelitsa, carries the role of Carmen with earthy confidence and credibility, singing with angelic power. Her commanding presence makes all those around her seem mere satellites in Carmen's stellar orbit, which goes some way to cover up for the comparatively bland acting of Tshoni as her unlikely lover.

Of course, improbable unions abound in U-Carmen E-Khayelitsha, where operatic stylisation is wedded to dusty realism, European and African aesthetics become conjoined, and a well-worn form acquires a fresh vibrancy. It is not altogether unlike the recent works of Baz Luhrman (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) - although he would probably have made this film a lot busier and half an hour shorter.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Zamile Christopher Gantana, Andries Mbali, Andiswa Kedama, Sibulele Mjal, Pauline Malefane, Zweilungile 'Zorro' Sidloyi , Andile Tshoni , Lungelwa Blou, Andile Kosi
  • Director: Mark Dornford-May
  • Screen Writer: Pauline Malefane, Andiswa Kedama, Mark Dornford-May
  • Writer: Ludovic Halévy, Henri Meilhac
  • Producer: Ross Garland, Camilla Driver, Mark Dornford-May
  • Photographer: Giulio Biccari
  • Composer: Georges Bizet, Charles Hazlewood

In a nutshell

Carmen finds a new home in a South African shantytown, lending the nation her powerful voice for the new freedoms of the post-apartheid era.

by Anton Bitel

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