Being in the army is a very butch thing. Being in the South African army during the turbulent 80s is a whole different matter. There’s no place for softies, weaklings, sissies, “poofs” or anyone who doesn’t ogle women, catcall passing ladies and get into a bar fight simply to show off who’s the strongest, toughest, most macho oke around. And that’s a problem for Johan Niemand, an awkward 18-year-old, because not only is he from a nice quiet dorpie, he’s gay and he’s been drafted into the armed forces.
Comedian-actor Schalk Bezuidenhout looks a whole lot different from how fans know him. He’s ditched his bright knitted jerseys, colourful takkies and moustache that have made him famous in shows like comedy series Hotel and current affairs series Die Ware Naarheid. He’s clean-cut, clean-shaven and has a way of standing that makes you forget that he’s closing in on 30 rather than being fresh out of matric as he runs around in his army fatigues.
As brilliant as Schalk is in the role, the real winner is the lesson of the movie: that it’s okay to be different and that you must never let bullies beat you down. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the epitome of the strong-armed anti-gay Apartheid army machine or, like Johan, willing to spice things up and sashay your way down the main street wearing a wedding gown and full neon make-up impersonating Boy George in Culture Club’s 1983 hit song Karma Chameleon. Even better, Johan gets to do what he loves: singing. Because every military division needs a choir singing like canaries when they’re rolling into battle, right?
You don’t need to speak Afrikaans to understand Kanarie. It’s got a universal message that crosses language barriers. How else do you explain a 100% rating on US film critic site Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.9/10 on IMDB? It’s won awards at film festivals both at home and abroad, including Best Director, Picture, Editing, Set Design and Supporting Actor at the Silwerskerm Fees in Cape Town; Best Narrative Feature at the 36th Reeling Film Festival in Chicago; and Special Mention at the NYC NEWfest LGBT Film Festival.
What Kanarie – and we – are trying to say is that it’s okay to toot your horn, whether it’s a brass trombone or a streamer-covered drum majorette baton. Just be yourself.