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 A U-Carmen Interview 
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In 2005, "U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha" captured the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival over such favorites as Oscar nominee "Hotel Rwanda" and Golden Globe winner "Paradise Now." The film, directed by Mark Dornford-May and co-written by May along with translation by the film's star Pauline Malefane, "U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha" is an adaptation of Georges Bizet's legendary opera "Carmen." The film is spoken and sung entirely in Xhosa, the third most popular of South Africa's eleven native languages that is noteworthy for its unique tongue-clicking. The cast, entirely comprised of film novices, is entirely South African and nearly all core cast members are members of "Dimpho Di Kopane," an ensemble lyric theatrical company started by Dornford-May in 2000. Following a screening of "U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha," the film's director, Mark Dornford-May, and its star, Pauline Malefane, sat down with Richard for a brief conversation about the film.

 

Richard:

How did you cast the film?

MDM:

I've been a stage director for over 25 years. I was invited by Dick Entoven to start an ensemble company in Cape Town. I went over to South Africa, and began the process of auditions immediately. We scouted young performers in urban and rural areas of South Africa. After about 2,000 auditions, forty company members were selected and work began on "Carmen" and "Yiimimangiliso the Mysteries."

Richard:

Your score in the film is amazing. How did this transpire?

MDM:

I've worked before with Charles Hazlewood on several European shows.

Richard:

Did he also supply the film's choir?

Richard:

No. There's quite a choir network in South Africa. In Cape Town, a city of three million people, there are 300 choirs. Each choir usually has 100 people. It is not quite accurate to say that this cast had no experience. In South Africa, most people are raised singing from the age of six or seven. They sing at home, at church, in local choirs. Their training may not be professional, but they certainly do sing.

Richard:

How did the cast train for this experience? What was their background?

PM:

We had a month or two of rehearsals and training before filming. The cast all trained in different ways. They all came from different backgrounds. I studied music at the University of South Africa, and had limited exposure to opera. Some cast members sang in local choirs. The company, as a whole, we worked together.

Richard:

How strong was Mark's influence on this process of training?

PM:

He didn't necessarily tell us how to think or how to feel, but he allowed us to develop our characters on our own.

Richard:

Is this how the whole blending of Bizet with the African culture began to develop?

MDM:

Early on, we decided to do the story and to set it in South Africa. Once we set it in South Africa, Pauline translated the script and we began to look for cultural references to include in the film. For example, the bull slaughter scene...that is a common South African ritual in times of celebration. It felt natural to include it in the film during a time of celebration. On the other hand, the fortune-telling scene was a bit of a liberty. It is in Bizet's story, however, as written it would never occur in the South African culture. We decided to include the scene, however, we adapted it somewhat to remain faithful to the African culture.

Richard:

How supportive was the community in which you filmed?

MDM:

We actually opened the film for a one-month in the township of Khayelitsha. It was the very first time the township had ever experienced a film. We had an extra showing of the film during the film's final week, and we had 1500 plus people showing up for each filming. We felt very strongly about giving the township that opportunity. We did make a conscious decision to charge them, because we wanted them to realize that those people on the screen were actually working. This was their livelihood. Because we actually filmed throughout the township, people were growing very impatient waiting for the film to be completed.

Richard:

What was the response after you won the Golden Bear?

MDM:

When we returned home, it felt like we'd won the World Cup. There was a tremendous celebration, and it seemed to provide hope to many that they to could achieve their dreams.

Richard:

What's up next?

MDM:

We hope to build a cinema in the township by 2009. It will be the first cinema ever in the township. Most cinemas are in shopping malls, and are financially impossible for most South Africans. We have already finished a second film, "Son of Man," based upon the Passion plays. We are utilizing the same cast. Pauline plays the Virgin Mary. Christ is portrayed as African. The film recently won the "Best Feature" prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Richard:

Well, I know both of you just got into town early this morning. I appreciate your time and look forward to seeing "Son of Man."

PM:  Thank you.

"U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha" played in competition at the 2006 Indianapolis International Film Festival in Indianapolis, Indiana. The film's follow-up, "Son of Man," played during the 2007 IIFF. For more information on the film, visit U-Carmen.

- Richard Propes
 The Independent Critic
*Interview first published April 28, 2006 on IndependentCritics.com.

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