The Body of Carmen By Anjelika Artyukh

in 15th Oslo Films From The South

by Anjelika Artyukh

There are eternal plots which are easily adapted in different cultural contexts: Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, and King Lear are but a few. Carmen’s story also belongs to these kinds of archetypical plots. And though, following Prosper Ménière’s example, the advent of Carmen on a cultural podium is dated by 1845, the number of interpretations of her beautiful death has a great quantity. Particularly, because of film medium. It’s just enough to remember versions of Carlos Saura and Jean-Luc Godard.

Another interpretation, Carmen in Khayelitsha (U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha), directed by Englishman Mark Dornford-May, already a recipient of the “Golden Bear” Award of the Berlin International Film Festival, is indeed one of the most unexpected versions of the life and death of this passionate smuggler. Carmen in Khayelitsha is a film-opera and at the same time a film-musical which skillfully combines Bizet’s music with South-African musical traditions. All the characters, lead by prima donna Carmen, sing as opera performers and simultaneously look like ordinary dwellers of Cape Town, more precisely of Khayelitsha, a district of the city’s slums.

Khayelitsha is not even like Harlem where its inhabitants often saunter about with golden chains and even more often flash their big guns. It’s the deepest pit of African life: poverty and everyday wretchedness. But how much driving force, vital energy, and sexuality are there.

The film has a magnificent overture accompanied by the symphonic theme “Toreador, bear for action!” – a clip-like section of street-life scenes: children playing football, women working behind sewing-machines, men idly smoking cheap cigarettes, young girls making eyes at local lads. Street life undecked and without gloss. Life peeled back. An ultra-modern (documentary) language of narration, showing reality in all its unattractive beauty. Many directors are using this language now: from Carlos Reygadas (Battle in Heaven) to Zhang Ke Jia (The World). However, there is a European accent in this African version. It’s undoubtedly a look from outside, a view of a Westerner’s life in a South-African community. It has its moments of black humour which the author uses to the full extent at the end of the film – it is the scene of Carmen’s murder, also accompanied by “Toreador”. To a stranger’s eyes, Cape Town is a city of potential toreadors, joyful and musical people but with a closer look, very dangerous ones.

In Khayelitsha Carmen is the only one who has a name of “Carmen”. A girl from a cigarette factory who is a smuggler. A black queen of local jungles, a stout woman who looks like as a real opera diva. Her bodily stoutness is her beauty and she carries it as a gift. In poverty-stricken district of Cape Town a burly body looks like as an exceptional wealth.

Carmen’s body speaks a South-African language every time she moves. This language of an archaic foreign dance is contrasted here with the more modern European language of Bizet’s music. However it doesn’t contradict the former but serves to enrich it. We have a perfect example of multiculturalism here. Because of a synthesis of European and African traditions, Carmen’s story of passion and jealousy is transforming right in front of our eyes into a universal one, a myth common to all mankind.

But this version of Carmen has its own overtone, its own “local colour” if you like. It’s not so much a love-story as a story about a murder – a cruel and ugly killing because of the impossibility to possess.

Who is he, Carmen’s murderer, who sticks a sharp knife into her burly body like a toreador at a corrida? His name is Jango (In Spain , he would be Jose). He is a sergeant at a local police office. In the marginal district of Khayelitsha to be a police sergeant is like to hold a high post. Uniformed policemen ride white cars, have sex with delinquent girls in exchange for their freedom and behave as local kings. Jango is not an exception; however, he differs from his colleges by his reticence and his biography. He is a fratricide who runs away from his village to the city hiding from his mother’s eyes. He doesn’t like to take part in orgies, tries to pray for forgiveness for his sin by reading the Bible, and looks like a rara avis in carrion-crows’ flock of lanky policemen.

Since the dance represents sexuality there, it’s important who is dancing and how. Carmen dances alone surrounded by others and always gets local youth worked up. She is a real motor of local orgies while Jango doesn’t move at all, just looks jealously at the dancers. He is always like a stranger and his Bible readings (probably, the only book in this wild neighbourhood) just emphasizes his outsiderness. If in Spain collective ecstasy culminates at a corrida’s stadium, in South Africa it is reached through a collective dance.

Carmen in Khayelitsha is a perfect example of how one can tell a story about sex without its direct demonstration. The film doesn’t contain sexual scenes between Carmen and Jango. And this touch is another “plus” for the overall concept of the film which narrates about how tremendous and killing the desire to possess another person’s body when it’s beyond reach can be.

As a matter of fact, the body of Carmen is a main character of the film. At the end it is bashfully covered by tarpaulin since even dead it still possesses its provoking indecency.