A township Carmen

After the Oscar-winning Tsotsi, the next film from South Africa is a radical take on Bizet's opera. Alice Jones reports

The film U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha opens with a lingering close-up on Carmen (played by Pauline Malefane), as a description of her "strange and wild" beauty from Merimée's original story scrolls across the screen. As the camera, a little regretfully, tracks back from Malefane's symmetrical face it accelerates, zooming out into the chaotic, vibrant streets of Khayelitsha, in a breathless journey that takes in dusty yards, colourful, dilapidated shacks, makeshift hair salons and impromptu street football. Here, then, are two of cinema's newest stars - Malefane and Khayelitsha, South Africa's fastest growing township, 30km from Cape Town and the setting for an updated version of Bizet's popular Spanish opera.

Along with Tsotsi, winner of this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar, U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha is part of a slowly swelling new wave of South African cinema. It was the unknown quantity at last year's Berlin Film Festival but waltzed off with the Golden Bear for its transposition of the classic love story from the seamier plazas of 19th-century Seville to the poverty-stricken streets of a 21st-century township.

This Carmen wears baseball boots and braids her hair, the "Toreador" glides into town in a silver Mercedes, and the soldiers wear riot gear and wield automatics. In the opening number, the soldiers' chorus assembles to "check out the girls and rate their butts" - a somewhat loose interpretation of the original libretto. But then it has been trans- lated (by Khayelitsha-born Malefane) from Bizet's melodious French into Xhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa.

Other than the initial shock of the setting and libretto, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha follows the original plot. Carmen's initial dance of seduction (which she performs while balancing her tea mug on her head) turns into a brawl and she is arrested by Sergeant Jongi, whom she seduces while handcuffed to his police van. Having escaped she goes to drown her sorrows at Bra Nkomo's shebeen, where the much anticipated guest of honour is Lulamile - a son of Khayelitsha-turned-international singer. A nod to his "toreador" role is made when he is called upon to slaughter a cow for his welcome feast.

The brains behind this reworking are the director Mark Dornford-May and the composer Charles Hazlewood, who set up the theatre company Dimpho Di Kopane (which means "combined talents" in Sotho) in Cape Town in 2000 for a joint project with London's Broomhill Opera. After auditioning 2,000 hopefuls, 40 singers and actors were selected. Their stage version of Carmen promptly sold out at Wilton's Music Hall in 2001 and they have since toured the world.

U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is DDK's first film and although there are worrying elements - a crashing advertisement for the fast-food chicken chain sponsor in the opening scene, a white director - it is a positive homegrown success, with an 85 per cent non-white crew. They have recently returned to Khayelitsha to film their second feature, Son of Man (attracting Stephen Daldry as executive producer).

The leading lady Malefane sang in local choirs from an early age and was first exposed to opera during a school trip to see Don Giovanni. Inspired, she enrolled at the University of Cape Town College of Music. She claims, "it was a fluke that I ended up in opera. I just took a pen and stabbed the page"; she rejected studying traditional music ("that's already in me"). Hazlewood admits that finding musicians for the orchestra was more difficult. They are a "ragbag mixture", since the South African musical tradition is vocal, rather than instrumental. But he used this rawness to positive effect, resulting in music with "bloodiness, not too much velvet."

Malefane is not the first black woman to take on the role of the fiery Spanish maiden. In 1954, Dorothy Dandridge was the first black woman to be nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Carmen Jones. Directed by Otto Preminger, with libretto penned by Oscar Hammerstein, the film was set in war-time America and had an all-black cast. Dandridge's Carmen is one of the sexiest incarnations of the role, ensnaring Corporal Joe (Harry Belafonte) and Husky Miller, the prize boxer (Joe Adams) with her bedroom eyes.

In 2001, Karmen Gei, a reworking of the opera with a bisexual heroine by Senagalese film director Joseph Gai Ramaka, caused members of the Islamic Mouride sect to riot outside cinemas in Dakar. And who could forget MTV's Carmen: A Hip H'opera in 2001, starring Beyoncé Knowles as Carmen and Mekhi Phifer as moody Philly cop Derrick Hill? Performed in rap, with little evidence of Bizet's score, Hill is seduced by both Carmen's reasoning as to why he should leave goody-goody Candi ("She's whack/You need a little spice in your life") and her beauty (Her body is "like weed smoke", making him "all light-headed"). The hip-h'opera also stars Mos Def as a corrupt cop, who shoots Carmen dead, backstage at her new lover's rap concert in LA.

The myriad interpretations add up to a hefty testament for the enduring appeal of the love story, and of its heroine. As Philip Pullman writes in a foreword to an edition of Merimée's novel: "It would be a dull reader, man or woman, who didn't fall a little in love with Carmen."

'U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha' opens on 21 April

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