21 February 2005
Xhosa film U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, the acclaimed version of Bizet’s opera Carmen set in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township, has become the first South African film to win the Golden Bear for best film at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival.
U-Carmen was only the second South African film – and the first in 25 years – chosen compete for the award. Athol Fugard’s Marigolds was awarded a Berlin Bear (normally called a Silver Bear) in 1980.
The Berlinale, second only to Cannes in terms of prestige, is the world’s largest film festival, selling in the region of 150 000 tickets and hosting about 16 000 film professionals, including 3 600 journalists. The International Competition is the festival’s most exclusive section, always restricted to around 20 films.
U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (Carmen in Khayelitsha) is the film adaptation of the opera U-Carmen that had its world premiere in New York in November 2004 as part of Season South Africa, a groundbreaking celebration of SA’s contemporary performing and visual arts.
Xhosa Carmen in the township
The film is spoken and sung in isiXhosa and set in present day Khayelitsha township, whose vibrant structures provide a spectacular backdrop for the pulsating rhythms and sinuous melodies that made Bizet’s Carmen so popular.
Bizet’s music, translated into Xhosa, mixed with traditional song and recorded by a dynamic orchestra of young South Africans, makes the film an extraordinary synthesis of Xhosa culture and European opera.
Directed by Mark Dornford-May and produced by Dornford-May and Ross Garland, U-Carmen is a Dimpho Di Kopane production in association with Spier Films and Nandos, with backing from the Department of Trade and Industry and the National Film and Video Foundation.
The film stars Pauline Malefane, who grew up in Khayelitsha, in the title role, along with South Africans Andries Mbali, Andiswa Kedama, Sibulele Mjali, Lungelwa Blou and Andile Tshoni.
“The idea of setting and filming the world’s most popular opera in Xhosa in a South African township seemed mad at the time,” said Dornford-May. “But it was an amazing experience for everyone involved, and it is a delight beyond words to know that an international audience can appreciate what is for us such a very personal and local triumph.”
“This award, Charlize Theron’s winning of best actress at the Oscars last year, and Yesterday’s nomination for best foreign film at the Oscars this year has put South Africa on the international film map,” said Dick Enthoven of Spier Films.
“By competing in the high arts and having success at this level, it makes people rethink their perceptions of Africa and South Africa, and validates our long-held belief that we can stand shoulder to shoulder with developed countries and compete on a global stage. May this triumph be an inspiration for all South Africans.”
U-Carmen will have its South African premiere in Khayelitsha in Cape Town on 3 March and then open in township venues around the country before it hits the formal cinema circut.
Dimpho Di Kopane – combined talents
Dornford-May was one of the founders of the South African Academy of Performing Arts, which later changed its name to Dimpho Di Kopane, meaning “combined talents” in SeSotho.
Founded in 2000, Dimpho Di Kopane (DKK) provides opportunities for South Africans to develop their musical performance talents and to promote South Africa’s lyrical theatre talent at home and abroad.
The company is made up of 40 members chosen after intensive countrywide auditions held in rural and urban South Africa by Britons Mark Dornford-May, its director, and Charles Hazlewood, its musical director.
The two criss-crossed South Africa to listen to more than 2 000 voices in tiny halls and classrooms, hearing everything from Zulu war songs and Christian hymns to Frank Sinatra and Italian opera.
Bulelwa Cosa, a 29-year-old company member from the Eastern Cape, explains: “We all come from different parts of South Africa and we bring our different skills. Some are better at dancing. Some are better singers than dancers. And some are actors. But when we get here, we put it all together – and that’s what makes it amazing.”
Four years later, the company has won considerable praise for its musical productions, which include playing over 200 international performances to sold-out houses on four continents.
In 2004, DKK held a critically acclaimed five-week repertory season in New York – part of Season South Africa, a groundbreaking celebration of SA’s contemporary performing and visual arts, which was supported by Spier and the International Marketing Council of South Africa.
DDK’s hallmark is looking anew at classics in the lyrical-theatre repertoire and staging them in many of South Africa’s indigenous languages, as well as imbuing the works with South African perspectives.
Yiimimangaliso The Mysteries, one of DKK’s New York productions, is typical of the company’s work.
The first production staged by DDK, Yiimimangaliso was created after a planned revival of the classic South African musical King Kong fell through. Dornford-May and Hazlewood had two options to replace it: either staging something established, or tackling “the more exciting and dangerous option” of making something new.
They chose novelty, and created Yiimimangaliso The Mysteries, a South African version of an English Mystery Cycle that was popular from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Plays based on the Scriptures, but also commenting on the Scriptures, they were an effective way of re-telling biblical stories in accessible and enjoyable ways.
In three months, the then fledgling DDK produced a script, built a coherent sense of company, designed and executed costumes and sets and created the score. Hazelwood gathered music from ancient and modern isiXhosa, Afrikaans, isiZulu and Dutch sources. He dispensed with an orchestra, using found objects for instruments, and the company as musicians.
Yiimimangaliso The Mysteries is performed on an almost bare stage and with minimal props. A bale of hay denotes a stable in Bethlehem; the Flood is represented by pouring a watering can into a washing up bowl; while the cast mimic the sound of animals boarding the Ark.
DKK’s other three New York productions were:
- The world premiere of Ikumankanikazi ye Khephu, a South African rendition of the classic fairy tale The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen.
- The world premiere of U-Carmen.
- Ibali loo Tsotsi, a different look at John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.
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