U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, 2005

The 13th New York African Film Festival’s opening night selection is Mark Dornford-May and the Dimpho Di Kopane South African Film and Lyric Theatre Ensemble’s gorgeous, sultry, bawdy, offbeat, and invigorating re-adaptation of Georges Bizet’s iconic Sevillian gypsy opera Carmen set in a modern day cigarette factory in the South African industrial town of Khayelitsha, near Cape Town. Sung entirely in Xhosa, one of the eleven official languages of South African, the titular role of the luminous seductress Carmen (Pauline Malefane) is transformed into the beautiful, alluring, and confidently outspoken cigarette roller and member of the Gypsy cigarette company’s all-ladies choir who catches the eye of a dashing, but insecure and weak-willed police sergeant named Jongi (Andile Tshoni) who abandons his socially (and morally) upstanding life in order to be with her, only to lose faith in their love and abandon her. The film remains faithful to the musical arrangement of the Bizet opera (with the exception of slightly abridged versions of the toreador’s song, Votre toast je peu vous le render and Carmen’s defiant silence during an interrogation, Tra-la-la…Attends un peu, Carmen) while infusing a unique African perspective to create a bold and infectiously bracing reinvention of Prosper Mérimée’s timeless, tragic tale of seduction, jealousy, betrayal, star-crossed love, and moral ruin.

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