AKA: U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, Carmen in Khayelitsha
, Carmen de Khayelitsha
Year Released: 2004
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Origin: South Africa/England
Running Time: 127 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: Carmen (1915 Cecil B. Demille film), Carmen (1915 Raoul Walsh film), A Burlesque on Carmen, Carmen (1918), Carmen (1926), The Loves of Carmen, Carmen (1932), Nights in Andalusia, Carmen de la Triana, Carmen (1942), The Loves of Carmen (1948 remake), Carmen Jones, Carmen di Trastevere, Man Pride and Vengeance, First Name: Carmen, Carmen (1983), Carmen (1984), Carmen on Ice, Carmen: A Hip Hopera, Karmen Gei, Carmen (2003), Carmen’s Kiss
For Fans Of: Carmen Jones, Son of Man, Justice is Done, Ascendancy, Les Miserables
-Special thanks to Dr. Y. for exposing me to this movie!
-U-Carmen is the second African remake/adaptation of Carmen after the Senegalese Karmen Gei and one of four versions with a black cast. The others are Carmen Jones and Carmen: A Hip Hopera.
-A vast majority of the dialogue is in Xhosa which is one of eleven official languages in South Africa. It’s a Bantu-based language that involves some clicking on certain consonants. It’s the most widely distributed language in South Africa and the only other country where it has official language status is Zimbabwe. Two of the actresses got to translate the original Carmen text into that language for this film.
-This was directed by Mark Dornford-May who’s originally from the Yorkshire region in England before moving to South Africa. He’s actually married to Pauline Malefane who played Carmen in this adaptation. His other directorial work involves Son of Man and Breathe.
-U-Carmen was filmed with non-professional actors and it was the cast’s respective film debuts. Also, all the songs were recorded live on set.
-Khayelitsha is actually a township in the Western part of Cape Town. It’s one of the places where Xhosa is the majority spoken language and it means “Our new home” in that particular tongue.
-U-Carmen is the first South African film to win the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. In the context of Iridium Eye, this is the second film I’ve reviewed that won that same award. The other one was the Iranian film Taxi.
South Africa has unexpectedly exploded in coverage in Iridium Eye over the past several months with multiple movies. Not only that, but I’ve also unintentionally viewed more musicals since December as the last review I did in 2019 was another South African project with La Maison Noir: The Gift and The Curse which I greatly enjoyed even though part of that enjoyment was knowing how original that long-form music video was. I think musicals should get more coverage even though they are rare in indie cinema to be honest. You’re not going to see productions to match anything from Disney (animated or live action) or Baz Luhrman to name a few. Funny how I mentioned Petite Noir’s video based on his EP because there is something in common with the singer who ripped off his work (Beyonce) and the musical I’m about to review. What is that, you ask? It’s an adaptation of Georges Bizet’s famous opera with a black cast. Although unlike Carmen: A Hip Hopera (the Destiny’s Child member’s acting debut, by the way), at least the people can actually act and can really sing for this project. BOOM! Roasted!
Okay, let’s get on with this modern Xhosa-language take on Bizet’s work.
U-Carmen takes place in the Khayelistsha township in Cape Town. There’s one notable place of work which is the Gypsy Cigarette factory that has an all-female labor force. One such employee is Carmensitha (or just Carmen for short) who is also part of a choir with her co-workers. She tends to be very flirty, but is self-aware that her previous flames have been bad luck. There’s a cop named Jongikhaya who is originally from the rural parts of South Africa that gets a ring from his friend Nomakhaya. It’s from his dying mother whom disowned him after his brother drowned in a childish spat in his original hometown. Carmen is attracted to him and even gives him a rose despite him not paying attention to her, but this sets off a budding romance in him. Their lives become intertwined, but this infatuation becomes much greater and tragic as things go on.
Seeing something in Xhosa was new to me as well as seeing an African remake of a famous opera, but this was a pleasant surprise for me. I want to talk about the music. Man alive, that was amazing! I’m sure most people can hum a Carmen song and not even realize it, but hearing the original score with Xhosa lyrics instead was phenomenal. These actors and singers had amazing voices that would blow so many opera troupes and theatre groups out of the water. Why are these people not more famous in the opera or even the musical scenes? Give them all careers! The fact that the songs were sung on set were certainly better than the 2012 version of Les Miserables (Russell Crowe, just STOP!), that’s for sure. I’m totally going to buy the soundtrack whenever I can spare some money. Not only do they use the original score, but they also have elements of African rhythms with some original songs or in some cases combining both worlds of music which was a nice touch.
The acting was very good. While I wouldn’t call it a neorealist film even with the modest budget and aesthetics, but I find it ironic that so many movies with nonprofessional actors I’ve seen such as this, Before Your Eyes, Offside, or even Munyurangabo have better acting compared to several Hollywood films. These actors just sell the emotions. It can be melodramatic at times, but it’s based on an opera, so it didn’t bother me as much. The musical moment with Jongi and Carmen singing while holding onto that rose was very powerful and I was close to tearing up seeing that scene. The story was able to translate well into this South African environment as opposed to the story’s original locale of Spain (side note: I did think it was weirdly funny about a line of one of the character’s singing that Seville wasn’t far from Cape Town in passing). The production isn’t super flashy or gaudy like so many mainstream musicals. If you’re expecting something along the lines of Moulin Rouge, Mamma Mia!, The Greatest Showman, or even that new Cats movie (Why, Idris Elba, why?!), then you’ll be disappointed. However, the camera work is fine with the no-frills approach with elements of realism with very minimal effects with some of the transitions. I think if U-Carmen looked like those movies, then it would be super tacky and kill the mood for most of the songs.
U-Carmen has missteps in this cinematic seguidilla. For starters, I didn’t think it was a good choice for the name of the cigarette factory or the female choir associated with it. The Gypsy names and uniforms weren’t doing it. I get why since the original Carmen opera has the title character as a Romani woman, but I wouldn’t be using that word even if it’s just a little reference to the original work. I thought some of the background characters were quite underdeveloped like with Carmen’s friends at the bar for example. I would’ve liked to know more about some of them. Same with Nomakhaya. While the music was quite fantastic, I would’ve liked to have heard more African influence instead of just using the Xhosa lyrics, but that’s a minor complaint. However, there was one subtle issue that may sound superficial, but this needs to be addressed. U-Carmen was sponsored by Nando’s! Even though I’m not from South Africa or the UK (yes, I know about the cheeky nandos joke and I’m American!), I know what that restaurant is…it’s a freaking fried chicken joint! Their name shows up very early in the credits and you see an ad on a street sign that wasn’t subtle. I know it’s only those two things, but this wasn’t necessary. Do I need to explain why a fried chicken chain sponsoring a majority-black cast movie is a bad idea? I know it’s not as bad as BET getting KFC sponsoring their Black History Month PSAs, but come on! That prevented me from giving this movie a perfect ten to me.
This take on Bizet’s work was a very unique watch and I enjoyed it. The musical and acting aspect was stellar. Hearing these songs in Xhosa was something I didn’t know I wanted to hear and it sounded beautiful. The cinematography while naturalistic was quite effective. This was certainly wonderful, but I did have issues with the Nando’s endorsement which hampered things. I would strongly recommend U-Carmen to those wanting to check out African cinema, musicals, or even fans of the original opera.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1 point if you like operas and classical music.
Subtract 1-2 points if you like more spectacle in your musicals.
-Good naturalistic camera work
-Incredible Xhosa take on Bizet’s score
-Not enough is known about most of the background characters
-There could’ve been more African influence in some of the songs
-The Nando’s co-signing. SMH
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Warning: U-Carmen is good for teens and up. The language can get rough at times, there’s suggestive content like innuendo or some of the dancing, some violence, and there’s death that plays a major role in certain scenes. One subplot involves some people that Carmen knows who are drug dealers, so that gets very uncomfortable.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. U-Carmen is property of Koch Lorber. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of Koch Lorber.