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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 March, 2005, 10:07 GMT
Changing SA's townships through opera
By Nick Miles
BBC News, Cape Town

As the limousines arrive at the premiere of an award winning film version of Carmen, U Carmen E Khayelitsha, they have to slow down for a group of barefooted children pushing shopping trolleys filled with scrap metal across the road.

Members of the cast at the premiere
The cast were recruited from South Africa's townships
Welcome to a movie premiere in a South African township.

Outside the venue for the premiere - a converted sports hall in the impoverished former township of Khayelitsha - life is hard, rows of shacks with corrugated iron roofs stretch into the distance.

Inside are 600 handpicked guests, the great and the good of Cape Town's artistic community all in one place.

The carpets are red, the drinks are flowing and the dresses were in the Oscar acceptance speech mould. Made to make an impression.

So why stage the premiere in the middle of an area so blighted by poverty?

Well, the event was launching a very special film on the South African public.

And there are plenty of reasons why U Carmen E Khayelitsha is special.


It is the first operatic film to be made in South Africa's Xhosa language, it is the first African film to win the coveted Golden Bear for best picture at the Berlin Film festival and it is the first mainstream film to use actors almost exclusively from the townships.

They were brought together almost five years ago after extensive auditions held in the townships across South Africa.

U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha
This film shows that something good can come out of the townships
Bulelwa Coza
Chorus member
Mark Dornford-May, the English-born artistic director of the Spier Arts festival near Cape Town, wanted to discover a new generation of talent in the townships which had been largely overlooked, people who often had little acting or singing training but had huge potential.

The resulting theatre group, Dimpho Di Kopane or Combined Talent, ran a number of hugely successful productions which toured around the world.

With the tours over, Mr Dornford-May decided to set Carmen to film in a local setting.

The result is impressive - it is a vibrant, raw adaptation.

But does it manages to make Carmen relevant to a township audience?


After a standing ovation at the end of the film, people at the premiere I spoke to were gushing about what it had achieved both artistically and socially.

"I'm really proud because it most definitely has a local feel to it," said Mbu Boqwana, the chairman of the Khayelitsha community police forum.

View of Khayelitsha
The black people from here who've been successful in this film will move to the white suburbs, leaving us
Saron Sheede
Khayelitsha resident
"It reflects how life is here, it's tough but there's a passion about life because people have to put up with so much."

Members of the film's cast are understandably upbeat as well.

Many I spoke to saw it as a catalyst for transforming Khayelitsha and other townships across South Africa.

"When most people hear about places life Khayelitsha or any township it's usually because of high crime levels or problems with HIV," says chorus member, Bulelwa Coza.

"This film shows that something good can come out of the townships, its impact is huge on life here.

"When we were filming, thousands of people watched us, we've been giving talks to people in the community who want to do their own films or get involved in theatre work, they've seen our success and want to follow us".

The optimism about the film is mirrored by some significant changes in townships like Khayelitsha.

Yes there is extreme poverty and the racial segregation is still as stark as ever - very few, if any, white people life in the townships - but there are signs of wealth and opportunities spreading.

Earlier this month, a new $15m shopping centre got the go-ahead in a distant part of the township.

The publicity brought by the film certainly won't harm Khayelitsha's future prospects.

Heavily booked

It was hard to find any dissenting voices within the premiere crowd about the film's achievements.

But a short walk outside the perimeter fence of the venue gave me a different impression.

Director Mark Dornford-May
Mark Dornford-May has become known for directing stage opera
Few people I spoke to knew why so many apparently rich and largely white people had suddenly turned up on their doorstep.

Saron Sheede, is 30 but has never had any full time paid work, he has four children to look after and lives in a one bedroom shack.

"I don't have the time or the money to spend on going to the cinema," he tells me.

"The black people from here who've been successful in this film will move to the white suburbs, leaving us".

Cynicism like that is understandable in a place that has been overlooked for so long but the film's production team remain committed to using the film to change the way townships are perceived.

The producers are releasing the film across South African but only in the townships for the next month, sending the signal that the townships matter.

Often films bypass the townships completely because there are few large scale cinemas there that can afford to buy in new releases.

Certainly in Khayelitsha demand for tickets, priced at $1.50, is high.

The venue for the premiere is heavily booked for most of its one month run.

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