U-Carmen eKhayelitsha Mark Dornford-May

This exciting adaptation of Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen sets the story of the free spirited gypsy in contemporary South Africa in the Khayelitsha township. Originally a stage production (seen at the World Stage festival in Toronto in 2003), the opera has been translated into Xhosa by Pauline Malefane, who also delivers a thrilling performance in the title role. While the stage production felt like a more traditional translation, the film version is an imaginative and effective adaptation that incorporates South African dance, music and ceremony (the bullfight is replaced by a ritual in which a bull is sacrificed). Carmen is possibly the world’s most performed opera and it has arguably become rusted with over-familiarity: everyone, opera-lover or not, can hum a tune or two from Carmen. This production works as an adaptation should: a process stripping away the layers of familiarity to reveal the strength of the original story. Elements of the European opera that now seem picturesque (gypsies, soldiers, smugglers living in caves) are gritty in their contemporary equivalents (single mothers living in a shanty town, ubiquitous armed police, drug smugglers). In this translation from quaint to contemporary, the film recaptures the strength of the original novel and opera. The cinematography also helps to refresh the story — the film is shot in a documentary style with handheld camera, outdoor locations and natural light forming a naturalistic contrast to the staginess of the operatic singing. And there are some fun meta-textual games: Carmen and her friends sing in the "Gypsy Cigarette Girls Choir” and the toreador Escamillo is replaced by Lulemile, an opera singer who is seen on television performing in a bullfighter’s costume. This DVD, part of Mongrel Media’s Festival Collection, comes with no extras, which is unfortunate, as a commentary by Pauline Malefane or director Mark Dornford-May would be welcome.