KANARIE is such a sweet film.  Don’t know why that adjective springs to mind when it is about a young man who, under church and state conditioning, struggles with his inner self, his authentic self.  Perhaps it is because of the love in the film.  Or, maybe, it’s the songs and the singing … Boy George to Brahms.  Then again it could be the way that a discreet social agenda never takes centrestage, simply whispering gently to make its point.  Whatever the reason, this is a film which nestles easily into Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival for its uplift, entertainment and joy.

We meet Johan.  Joyously, innocently, camping it up with his girl pack.  This 18 year old bursts into the street on a bet … in drag! It is 1984, the height of Apartheid, in a small town in South Africa and his dreaded conscription papers will kill this flight of imagination. Under the influence of his mother and a desire not to fight, he will audition for the Canaries who are the South African Defence Force Church Choir and Concert Group.  As a ‘Singer, Saviour, Soldier’ he will learn about himself, fall in first love and have his doubts raised about the political purpose of the military machine.  His two besties, Wolfgang and Ludolf travel with him and his mentor Reverend Engelbrecht will minister to his spirit and his morals.  But only Johan can mentor his true nature.

Co-written with Charl-Johan Lingenfelder who is also responsible for the terrific music choices, the film is directed by Christiaan Olwagen with a very light touch.  There are some entirely charming comic sequences balanced with dramatic scenes which just dare you to judge Johan, at your peril.  One particular scene, laden with denials for the best of sibling reasons, tears well and my thoughts rushed to wonder if the environment for LGBTQ people has changed in South Africa.  A googlehole to fall down.   Spoken in Afrikaans with English subtitles, the film’s narrative dawdles along a dusty road allowing the viewer to enjoy that kind of reflection and hope.

The events are all leading to growth in Johan but the characters he encounters are also on their own path.  Schalk Bezuidenhout gives Johan a wide eyed passivity and as proceedings challenge his character’s anti-gay socialisation.  Bezuidenhout brings out an interiority to the internal processing of new emotions.  A home-town household name for his comedy work, his is a very subtle performance that makes an audience root for him rather than apply modern judging.  Same for a lovely, positive and loving performance from Hannes Otto as Wolfgang.

Just hangin’ out there in this film is a brilliant comic turn from Germandt Geldenhuys as Ludolf.  With the voice of an angel and the finesse of a bullhorn, he is hilarious and jolly and deeply humanist.  As is the remarkable performance of Jacques Bessenger as Rev Engelbrecht.  This character will sneak up on you and earn an early audience investment in the power of love and faith to make Johan self-aware.  But this a more complex film that that.  Critiquing without vitriol,  it has a reality based agenda to explore Christian doctrine, history, oppression and the need for role models.  Like … Boy George!

The film doesn’t shy away from the homophobia of the armed services of its time with same-sex sex having more offensive, derogatory euphemisms than one can count and enough repetitions of the c word to burn it firmly into my foreign language vocabulary … should I need it.  What is also on repeat are really enjoyable 80s bands, Johan has an obsession with new wave British bands and they are such a pleasure to hear on the soundtrack of Johan’s imagination.  Also superb is the ecclesiastical music, which is beautifully performed by a male choir of excellence, real Canaries according to the film credits.

KANARIE really is a sweet film in its balance of humour and high emotion, love without excesses of hate and, above all, its showcasing of the possibility of the triumph of individuality over the social pressures of uniformity.   “Slap me with a soggy pawpaw” if this isn’t one of the hits of Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Festival.

Find out more about KANARIE at the official website, Facebook and Instagram.  You can also see the trailer on YouTube.

Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras FF runs February 13-28 and KANARIE screens Thu Feb 14 8:30 pm, Event Cinemas George St.