U-CARMEN eKHAYLITSHA - Q&A with director MARK DORNFORD-MAY and PAULINE MALEFANE
Winner of the prestigious Golden Bear at the 2005 Berlin Film Festival, U-CARMEN eKHAYELITSHA is a unique film presentation of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen. Set in the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha, it stars South African singer Pauline Malefane as the spirited and passionate lover Carmen. Behind the camera is her husband, Mark Dornford-May, the Yorkshire-born director who established the Cape Town lyric theatre company Dimpho Di Kopane (DDK) back in 2000 with Charles Hazelwood, previously his fellow artistic director at the Broomhill Opera in London. Their first major production was Carmen, starring Pauline in the lead. Touring the US, Australia, Canada, Turkey and the UK - where The Observer newspaper claimed "from now on this should be the Carmen by which others are measured" - it was only natural that DDK should consider bringing the film to an even wider audience on the big screen.
Why do you think Carmen retains its popularity?
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: It's certainly the most performed opera. Whether that makes it the most popular, I don't know. Depends how you judge popularity. I think it's because it's a story that is terribly accessible. It works across all sorts of different cultures and it has some of the most repeated tunes in the history of the world. It's got that appeal.
PAULINE MALEFANE: I think it's because there is a very strong message behind this whole story and the fact that it's universal - it could be anywhere, anytime or anyone. In the 1800s, it still made sense to people living then, and now in the 21st Century, it's still relevant. By the looks of it, when my daughter is 20 years old, people will still relate to this story.
Do you think its perennial success is due to the figure of Carmen herself?
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: Carmen herself, I think, is a massive female icon. Whether that's originally to do with the novel...obviously the opera moves the novel forward. The novel, originally, was a fantastic success and the sense of that lingers on. It is one of the few pieces within the opera world where not only the protagonist, but also the interesting character, is a woman. She's not just a love interest - but is the one who creates the drama.
You originally directed Carmen on stage, right?
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: That's the first time I'd ever tackled Carmen. Originally, in the stage production - and when we played in New York - we play in English, not in Xhosa. Opera is such a rarefied and artificial art form, it was important to us that we didn't stretch any more disbelief when we moved it onto film. There's enough disbelief that we're asking to suspend, with people singing rather than talking. So what we didn't want to do was then put people speaking English within a South African township. It felt more natural and it's much easier for performers to work in their first language rather than their second or third language.
So what made you want to put it onto film in the first place?
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: The New York Times went bananas about our stage production and that's what gave us the confidence to approach the same story in a different medium. The London Times described Pauline as the definitive Carmen of all time. That means, when she's standing in front of the camera she's not thinking 'Oh, fuck! Am I any good?'
How difficult was it for you, Pauline, to play the role on screen, after having played it on stage?
PAULINE MALEFANE: The fact that I did it on stage for four years before we made the film helped with the interpretation, the way I interpreted the role. Now because we're making it as a film, I had to have a much bigger picture than just performing an opera on stage. I did a lot of reading, and watching different operas and interpretations, and I found the most common thing about them was that they portrayed one side of this woman and not the other side of this character. A lot of women not only in South Africa but also Africa and the whole world relate to her qualities. She is strong, determined and courageous, a woman that wants to survive in very difficult living conditions and circumstances in a male dominated society. So for the film I wanted to carry that message. I don't think I got into that detail on stage, though it wasn't too far from what we see on screen. On stage, we still had the traditional opera setting - as Carmen is a bullfighter. So setting it in Khayelitsha, we had to change those elements. That forced me to get into the character more and carry out and emphasise what I was doing on stage in a more African setting.
How difficult was it technically to change from stage to screen?
PAULINE MALEFANE: The one thing that I was worried about was that it was my first film, and I didn't know how to act or respond to the camera. I didn't have any relationship with the camera. On stage, I've got my audience there, and I felt so comfortable. I seduced not only Don José, but also the audience - for them to be with me, to understand exactly what I'm doing. I used to play around a lot with the audience, on stage. With film it's so difficult, because it's to camera. The main problem that I had was...on stage, I would start the opera from the beginning to the end, and I worked my way through my emotions. And it's a build up. When you die in the end, you really die! You reach a crescendo. On film, we'd do things the other way round - like the police chasing me, as I've stabbed someone, but I hadn't done the stabbing. I found that very difficult. It was hard to get used to. And the fact we pre-recorded the music before shooting the film, so we were acting to playback. They were expecting us to mime. In the end, I had to sing all the time on set. What they did in the end was mix the live recording with the studio recording.
So did you find on film that less is more?
PAULINE MALEFANE: What was emphasised to us was that we should just carry out the story, which I think was important. Having not been in a film before, I couldn't take other people's word. In a way, I suppose what I did was tell a story and use whatever technique I could - mixing the stage and film techniques. And if it didn't work, then I'd leave it to those watching the monitor, because I don't do monitors! So I think I used a bit of both, and mixed them together.
Mark, was it a tough experience, given it was your first feature as a director?
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: Obviously, one was nervous when we started. But I had a great DP. And I knew very early on that we wanted to clash the stylised art form of opera against a docu-style. We did a lot of hand-held stuff, and a lot of shooting through other objects, which one would think of as a documentary technique. We did that deliberately, rather than try and go for a middle-ground of half-stage, half-film. We went as film-like as possible, in terms of our shooting.
Have you seen any other versions of Carmen on film?
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: The only other one I saw was Cecil B De Mille's version, which was 1915. He based it on Prosper Mérimée's story, as it was silent. But he had the music playing, and interestingly enough he cast a famous opera singer as his Carmen. You couldn't hear her sing but she was a phenomenal actress! That was very, very useful. I think what he was trying to do was what we were trying to do, which was make the story real.
Why did you decide to relocate the film in a South African township in the first place?
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: It was an easy step to make. We're a South African company and the politics and economics of the story work in a South African township as they worked originally in the slums of Seville. Her desire to establish an independence, if you like, from what men want her to be works very well within a South African context. One of the things we still struggle with in South Africa is a male-dominated society, as I'm sure existed in 19th Century Spain. So in those ways, those decisions weren't very difficult to make. They were very easy to make.
What was it like filming in your own neighbourhood?
PAULINE MALEFANE: It was nice. People were very, very excited about the whole idea of a movie being shot in Khayelitsha in our language. People would sit and watch and listen, and in the end they would be interested in being extras. The scene at the end in the sports hall we had a thousand extras, so people feel very much a part of this project, because it's set in their township. And they love music. We have a very strong musical background in our culture.
Can you explain how your company DDK works?
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: We work very much as an ensemble. We've been working together now as a unit for four years, so we know each other quite well. Things develop very much as a team process. We all have responsibilities within that, so we don't debate whether we're going to do a close-up or a long shot. That's my call if you like. But the overall sets, the overall story, the overall politics of what we produce is made collectively. The energy and the focus is something that grows out of our way of working and out of South African culture.
Was there a wealth of talent waiting to be tapped in South Africa?
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: Because of the history of South Africa, you couldn't really judge people by what they'd achieved. All I did was go into the townships...the only thing people had to do was fill in a form and sing. I thought anyone who had the courage to go into a room and sing probably had some performing ability. So that's all that happened. Out of that we saw 2000 people. I could've been the manager of McDonalds; people were turning up because I was offering work. I didn't see 2000 people who'd always wanted to act; I saw 2000 people who wanted a job. Out of that, 40 I felt could act. That's South Africa - you could do the same in rugby or medicine. There's a wealth of talent that has so far been completely cut out of society.
Do you get government funding?
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: We get huge government support, morally. But we don't get any funding from the government. We had a bit of support from the National Film and Video Foundation, who are a government quango. But it is much easier in wealthier countries for politicians to put money aside from the arts that it is in a country where in certain areas there is no water. It's very difficult to say we deserve tax payers' money to do art when people don't have clean water. So we survive off our private funding.
Pauline, how did you find working with Mark, your husband?
PAULINE MALEFANE: I think why it works, working with him, is that we didn't start as husband and wife or lovers. He was my employer and I was his employee. So we developed that working relationship before the personal one. If you like, by the time we were together, I knew how to deal with him in a work way and a personal way, which makes it easier for us in terms of our relationship. Obviously it's not all plain sailing - we have disagreements. But we're human.
What started you singing?
PAULINE MALEFANE: I've always sang. I've always experienced people singing, in traditional gatherings, weddings, that kind of thing. But it changed when I started going to school, obviously, and being involved in the choir. In high school, I really enjoyed singing. But I was just enjoying myself. We were not exposed to opera at all, though. I used to enjoy going out of Cape Town and competing with other schools in Jo'Berg and the Eastern Cape, and all over South Africa. So when I finished school, I wanted to study in college - as society expected you to study for a profession like a teacher, or doctor or an accountant. A safe profession! That didn't really work for me, so I decided to take a year out of school and find a job before going back to university. In the end, I ended up registering of UCT - University of Cape Town - and registering for opera by fluke. I could've chosen traditional Zulu or Xhosa or jazz...but I put my pen on opera!
Mark, you were originally from the UK. Do you think opera has a very elitist image still here?
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: Opera has been hijacked by a certain group in society, and it's become a glittering social event. It has fuck all to do with what opera was originally about, which was mass communication. If you look at Puccini, he was the Steven Spielberg of the early 20th Century. He wanted to sell popular entertainment. I think we've got it wrong in a lot of ways. The majority of the so-called 'grand houses', like the Royal Opera House, you'll still pay £140 for a good seat. There's a dress code and a way of behaving. You could pay that to see a Madonna concert, so it's not just economic. There's also a sense that if you go to an opera house you have to behave in a certain way and have a certain understanding of what you're going to see, which no other art form demands that you do before you arrive.
How surprised were you to win the Golden Bear in Berlin?
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: It was a complete shock in a way, but I suppose the fact that we were in competition, meant we stood a chance of winning something. I don't think we expected to win the Golden Bear - I thought Pauline might get something for her performance - but it was fantastic. Not just for us but for South African film in general. Now we seem to be on a roll in South Africa, in terms of what's been happening and what's been achieved.
Why is this?
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: It's to do with economics, in the sense that when the Rand was weak there was a lot of foreign films and commercials that were serviced there. As the Rand strengthened, a lot of work went elsewhere - to Eastern Europe or South America. So it made the industry look to itself and think about what it's about. So Yesterday was the first South African film to get an Oscar nomination, then there was TSOTSI this year. Our second film, SON OF MAN, just won Best Feature in the Los Angeles Film Festival. It now feels like you're part of something. It doesn't feel like a one-off. I think if only one of those things had happened, it would be a different feeling. Now you're talking about four or five films winning major awards, then it creates a very different atmosphere.
The South African premiere was in Khayelitsha, I believe. How did it go?
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: Fantastically. We determined right from the start that we'd show it in Khayelitsha, as that's where we'd filmed it. It was like a 'thank you' to the community. It went unbelievably well. Most cinemas in South Africa are in shopping malls, which are difficult to get to unless you have a car. It's also quite expensive unless you have a reasonably well-paid job, so putting it in the township we took away transport problems. And also we set our own ticket price, so that helped. Towards the end, we were getting in a thousand people a day for three weeks. It was hugely positive. People really took it to heart and loved it. We had parties of school kids, old aged pensioners, people who'd come from work or at the weekends, when they had a day off. Right across the board, there was a genuine sense of pride that a film was shot in Khayelitsha. And a particular sense of pride that it wasn't a film as one might expect. It wasn't just about the difficult side of township life. There was an element of that, but it's a film that celebrates a sense of community in the township as much as it shows how rough it is.
Is opera popular there?
PAULINE MALEFANE: It's starting to be popular now. Now people have been more exposed to more styles of music, often when they go to university. And they enjoy it. There has always been an opera house in Cape Town, and they started having choral training programmes and bringing township guys to go and work there as chorus members. And then there is us and the film. The film is a much bigger picture for people.
MARK DORNFORD-MAY: Up until now, the black South African audience has not been catered for at all. We're probably the second movie - after Yesterday, which was made in Zulu - in the history of South Africa has been made in a language that the majority of the population can understand. Obviously, we're doing it because we're passionate about what we're doing but also, quite honestly, our financial support sees that there is an untapped market in the country, which is right for exploitation.
Question & Answer Text Copyright Tartan Films