Review: Carmen in Khayelitsha (2005)


Directed by: Mark Dornford-May | 120 minutes | drama, romance, musical | Actors: Pauline Malefane, Andile Tshoni, Andries Mbali, Andiswa Kedama, Ruby Mthethwa, Bulelwa Cosa, Zintle Mgole, Lungelwa Blou, Zamile Gantama, Zweilungile Sidloyi

‘Carmen in Khayelitsha’ is an exciting experiment. Can you film such a classic from European culture in a completely different setting? That turns out to be very well possible.

Do not think that you will be presented with sophisticated sets. The film starts with raw footage from the townships. Slowly you discover who the actors / singers are and how director Dornford-May gives place to both the story and the music. Ultimately, music plays the leading role. The songs, if you may be so indiscreet as to call them that, are indeed surrounded by “real” images and acted-out scenes, but that’s actually an excuse to perform the opera from scratch with an all-black cast in very unusual locations. .

It is right that the music is emphasized. Bizet based his opera on a novel from that time. That novel is no longer read, but the opera ‘Carmen’ is still performed almost daily all over the world. In this film too, it appears again that the most moving scenes arise with the most beautiful pieces of music. ‘Carmen in Khayelitsha’ is not really the story. The music and the performances do, however, with Pauline Malefane in particular making an impression.

For opera connoisseurs it must be a fun voyage of discovery to see how situations from nineteenth century Spain are translated into present-day South Africa. Strangely enough, there is never talk of AIDS or drug abuse, but in the original opera the slums of Seville may have been portrayed a bit more romantic than they actually were. Apartheid is mentioned very indirectly and drug trafficking does occur, but only to give the story a new turn. In short: not a film for someone who wants to know what things are like in the townships.

A film not to be missed for anyone who has an affinity with opera and knows the original ‘Carmen’, and for people who want to get acquainted with the opera phenomenon. This is your chance. It takes two hours, but then you also know whether it is something for you or not. There are certainly melodies in it that you will recognize and love. However, if your opera finds an outdated nineteenth-century narrative form, this film will not convince you otherwise.

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