An interview with Mark Dornford-May and Pauline Malefane, director and star of U-Carmen eKhayelitsha
By Peter Fraser
I meet up with Mark Dornford-May and Pauline Malefane, director and star of the 2005 Berlinale Golden Bear winner U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, in an extremely chilly room, on an otherwise mild day far from the sweltering heat and boiling passions of their South African version of the opera Carmen. Proud of their achievement and its success for themselves, for their theatre company Dimpho Di Kopane and for South African cinema more generally, director and lead actor are certainly not resting on their laurels.
Nor would we expect them to, given their backgrounds. A theatre director for over twenty-five years, Dornford-May was the founder of the Playwright’s Company at the Bristol Old Vic and co-founder of London’s Broomhill Opera, as well as directing theatre nationwide and internationally. All this before being invited to form an ensemble company in Cape Town with his partner at Broomhill, Charles Hazlewood, music director and conductor for U-Carmen. Malefane, on the other hand, having sung in local choirs from a young age, decided to pursue an operatic career after seeing Don Giovanni during a high school outing. Upon graduating from the University of Cape Town College of Music, she joined Dornford-May at Dimpho Di Kopane in 2000 and was cast as Carmen in the theatre production that preceded the film.
Carmen is said to be the most performed opera in the world and has directly inspired at least fifty movie versions. Georges Bizet’s masterwork has certainly survived its lukewarm premiere in Paris on March 3, 1875, which, according to some, was so demoralizing that it precipitated Bizet’s death three months later.
U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is the first version to be set in a South African township. The original story set in Seville tells how Don Jose, a corporal in the army, falls in love with the beautiful gypsy Carmen and, after a fight with one of his superiors, forsakes his career in the army. He joins Carmen and her gang of travelling bandits, but she soon transfers her affections elsewhere, leaving Don Jose trapped on the wrong side of the law and unrequited in his passion. During the climactic bullfight, in which the bullfighter who has won Carmen’s affections is performing, Don Jose confronts Carmen and then stabs her to death.
In the new version Seville becomes the South African township Khayelitsha, Don Jose becomes Jongikhaya, a policeman with a history of violence, Carmen becomes a local woman involved with gangsters and the climactic bullfight becomes a play within a play at the end of the film. It’s a little reminiscent of the operatic close to the third part of the Godfather trilogy, which of course was also influenced by Carmen. So why the transition to South Africa, and why does it work so well? ‘It’s a story that transfers to different cultures quite easily’ says Dornford-May, ‘it’s a fairly universal story, and it’s the world’s most popular opera. We wanted to make sure that our production was different so we made that decision to set it in a township to create a sense of reality.’ Presumably it must have helped that Pauline Malefane was born in Khayelitsha and therefore perhaps had an automatic rapport with the locale.
‘The most enjoyable thing is that when people go and see Carmen as a film, they don’t have to go through the ridiculous social charade that normally attends the opera’ says Dornford-May, keen to bring opera out of its ivory tower and make it accessible beyond the upper classes. ‘After seeing the film, people have said, “we don’t normally go to the opera but we love this.” So that’s very satisfying.’
Yet even the cinema is very expensive for the typical denizens of Khayelitsha. So with the aim of democratizing both opera and cinema, the film was premiered to the local inhabitants in the theatre, or rather sports hall, where the closing scenes take place. The screenings continued for a month, reputedly with audiences of up to 1500 people per day coming to see the film. A success by any standards and one that must have been an especially welcome endorsement for U-Carmen’s director and star from the people who had the greatest right to be critical should the film have failed in its depiction of Khayelitsha. The turnout suggests that the translation of Carmen from one country and one social milieu to another has been extremely successful. Yet given that Carmen was written in 1875, an element of translation must be inevitable in every performance because times change and audiences move on, although the truly important themes of love, jealousy and betrayal remain as relevant and unchanging as ever.
Carmen has always been a cross-cultural hybrid. Bizet was a Frenchman attempting to capture Hispanic culture. However, the popularity of Carmen with Khayelitsha inhabitants might lead us to consider what they see in the story beyond the cherishable novelty of watching their township on screen. Such questions cut to the heart of this modern-day Carmen and to Malefane’s performance as the infamous central character. She is a Khayelitsha inhabitant who has ‘made good’ and returned to the township portraying a feisty European woman. ‘The way Bizet wrote Carmen was as a kind of femme fatale or selfish figure’ says Malefane, ‘and in that historical period, and in that culture, she may have been, but today we can see Carmen as a strong, independent woman.’ Malefane sees Carmen as ‘a role model for women from the area, especially for older women in the townships who perhaps don’t have careers but can still take pride in the work that they do.’ Malefane is clearly a strong personality; doubtless she identifies with Carmen, but this Carmen is perhaps drawn from her own character. Therefore one wonders if it isn’t Malefane herself who is the potential role model.
Regarding the film’s broader context, director and star seem to be pleased to be at the forefront of a cavalcade of South African films attracting critical plaudits and bums-on-seats at the international box office. Like the recent Tsotsi, U-Carmen doesn’t balk at the deprivations of its social setting but in this case neither does it dwell on them. Despite the tragedy of the story, the music strikes an ebullient and optimistic note that if anything undermines the sombre ending. Transparently a director with a social conscience, Dornford-May is evidently also committed to aesthetic considerations – after all, Carmen is not social realism - and this potent mix, along with his desire to continue making films in Khayelitsha, bodes well for future productions from Dimpho Di Kopane. ‘It feels like we’re on a roll’ he says. ‘It’s also significant that all the films doing well from South Africa are ‘black’ films, for want of a better word. It was important that U-Carmen was optimistic. We wouldn’t want to make the other kind of film, I don’t think.’