U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (South Africa, 2005) * * * 1/2
D: Mark Dornford-May
The secret of the last day of the festival is that half the audience is wiped out and doesn't come. So for one thing, you can get some sleep (which is usually badly needed), and you don't need to arrive hours early to get in line. You'll get a good seat, don't worry. Of course, everyone piled into the theater as quickly as they could anyway; I've never seen so many aggressive senior citizens.
Well, if you skipped the last day this year, you're a sucker. First was a real treat: Ebert was awarded the University of Illinois Distinguished Alumni Award (or something like that), which has been extended to him several times in the past, but which he's had to refuse, since some stupid rule meant that he would need to be in town at graduation time--when he's usually in Cannes. This year they finally changed the rule, and presented the ceremony at noon in the Virginia Theatre. Prior to handing over the award, a short video was shown, kind of a "This is your life Roger Ebert." It was a kick to see the old "Sneak Previews" opening credits again, as part of their montage. Roger then talked a little about the history of U of I, and finally led the various chancellors there into the original U of I chant, which was a moment straight out of the history of the Freemasons.
Finally the screening began of u-Carmen eKhayelitsha, a South African adaptation of Bizet's Carmen, the most famous opera of all, and starring a cast of black South Africans singing in the Xhosa language, complete with clicking tongues. The title role is played by Pauline Malefane, who lived in a township very similar to what is shown, and was originally recruited by director Mark Dornford-May (an English theater director) to appear onstage in one of his opera adaptations; he was inspired enough by the mostly-green cast to attempt the film. It has a remarkable opening; as we hear a descriptive passage from Carmen's source material--concerning the physical features of the seductress--the camera lovingly moves over the facial features of Malefane; then the camera flies out of the studio and through the narrow streets of the town, finally flying high above the roofs to view the setting of our play: a modern-day African city. The real tour-de-force moment comes in the recitation of "The Barber of Seville"; as Malefane swings her hips in a dusty crossroads, the men swoon, the women back her up, and finally all are swaying in an African dance to what is recognizable a Spanish-styled music. It has no right to work, but it does: something to do, perhaps, with Malefane's nontraditional beauty--she's no waif, but very full-bodied and proud of it--or simply it's the astonishing originality of this particular mix of image and music. It's hard to believe this is Dornford-May's first film, as he directs with an impressive style and showmanship, doubtless borrowed from his many years directing theater. You can also tell he loves his subjects (what had been intended as a short stay in South Africa has become a permanent residence); the film can be read as a love letter to Malefane. It does get a little plodding in the final act, and it seems to end abruptly, but this is such an imaginatively-conceived work that you're bound to forgive. His follow-up, which played at Sundance this year, is Son of Man, a South African adaptation of the Passion. It's supposed to be even better, and really, one wants to see what Dornford-May will do when he's up and running with this film career.
Both he and Malefane were present for the screening; they're currently working together in "The Mysteries," a touring musical with an African interpretation of the Christian Bible. Malefane spoke at length about auditioning for Dornford-May, and about conditions in South Africa post-Apartheid, both good and bad. Finally, she sang a song, and the walls of the Virginia Theatre reverberated. She received a standing ovation. Where was Marni Nixon? Back on a plane, alas; if she were here, she'd have rushed the stage and thrust her violet in the woman's hand.