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Golden Bear Winner U-Carmen eKhayelitsha
by Karen Pecota

It is not surprising to us that the Golden Bear Award for Best Picture went to U-Carmen eKhayelitsha. It was a brilliant production by director Mark Dornford-May. This adaptation of the opera Carmen was transformed in two ways. Instead of taking place in a Spanish ghetto, Dornford-May brought it to an authentic township in South Africa and translated the opera libretto from Spanish into the native South African Xhosa language. What is remarkable about the Xhosa language is its beautiful range of clicks and wide open vowel sounds which adapts nicely to the range of music in an opera. Every phrase and note sung had an authentic shift that mesmerized the ear to hang on to the next musical bar to be sung. It was amazing to listen to this classical piece being transformed with the freedom of South African dance that seemed to fit perfectly. Karen says, “I was smiling through the whole film. It was an automatic reaction”. Shelly adds, “It was wonderful that they kept to the sense of African beauty and did not try to fit into a Hollywood style of beauty. Pauline Malefane (Carmen), who is quite voluptuous, had an amazing sensuality and danced with a sense of enticing liveliness that made this film really stand out from the others”.

The crew observed while shooting that some of the people watching on the sidelines were afraid of the boom microphone (the big oblong mic that had fur all around). They thought that it was an animal. If it got too close to an observer, he would run away, frightened. Actors came from an ensemble company from the South African Academy of Performing Arts. This theater troupe is unique as the only traditional lyric theater group in the world; actors can dance, act and sing. They are on equal ground (salary) and live to perform as a team. Dornford-May says, “I work with an extraordinary company. There is a tremendous strength and creativity that comes from working with an ensemble company.” Even though they had already performed this adaptation on stage, this was their debut in film. Dornford-May likes telling stories and said, “I love being part of a team and working in collaboration towards the final piece. I hope the stories I tell affect people and the way they look at the world”. Donford-May had to interview hundreds of people in order to form this troupe. This was not an easy thing to achieve since none of them had been formally trained professionally.

The film illustrated how much South Africa has changed. For example, earlier it would not have been possible to film in the townships due to gang wars and crime. Now citizens have become fed up with violence, and gangs no longer control the townships; it is a safer place to live. Concerning funding, the director agreed that on paper it looked like a no-win situation, but since his theater group had a good reputation in South Africa, they were lucky to win the support of the South African Government and several private donors. They hope that this film will be shown in other parts of Africa to inspire others to find their talents and be proud of who they are.

It was wonderful that they received the Golden Bear Award. Perhaps this will open a door for the world to see how much talent lies in Africa. If this theater troupe ever comes to Germany, it certainly would be worth seeing them. They are fantastic!! The Ensemble Company is working on a film based on the New Testament and guess who will be first in line for the show? Yep! Yours truly, journalist Karen P.

Following are a few comments from the press conference:

Pauline Malefane (Carmen): One day we were filming in the car. Mark (the director) was driving the police car. Julio was filming right next to my face. Charlie the conductor was sitting, hidden, just next to me doing the board, you know, take five, etc., and the sound guy Simon was sitting and hiding in the back with the boom microphone and this moment was so crazy to me, that you could do a film like that. I was so amazed and I wanted to see how it was going to look. I didn’t shoot with the male lead that time and I was amazed when I saw myself “talking” to him and he to me, although we filmed separately.

Andiswa Kedama (Amanda): I learned that the language of Xhosa, my first language, is much more important than I thought. To think that something great could be written and sung in my own language makes me proud. I am proud to speak Xhosa. It has made such an impact and the youngsters back home are going to learn an important lesson from this experience. It is quite big for us black South Africans for an opera to be sung in one of the native languages.

Andrile Mbali (Jongikhaya): Yes, like you said, it’s the first time for most of us to make a movie. It also shows another side of South Africa, instead of just emphasizing crime that does exist. The film promotes a positive side to what we can do with our talents. And it does encourage the younger people that there are other things that they can do, to show off their talents.

Lungelwa Blou (Nomakhaya): Yes, I also could not believe that it was me inside the film…I liked it a lot.