The making of coming-of-age musical war drama, Kanarie



On 9 June 1967, the Defence Amendment Bill – which made military service compulsory for all white males – came into effect in South Africa. During the apartheid regime, this became a kind of rite of passage for many male youths, some of whom were as young as 17 years of age.

Charl-Johan Lingenfelder undertook this journey as a young man when he was recruited by the South African Defence Force (SADF). While struggling with the gruelling military training, he found a safe space serving in the SADF’s church choir and concert group, also known as the Kanaries (‘Canaries’). His story is now being told in the award-winning film Kanarie, produced by Marche Media.

Kanarie began when co-writer, Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, told director Christiaan Olwagen his personal story one day, on their way back from the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in Oudtshoorn. Christiaan was so intrigued by the concept of the Kanaries that it haunted him for a long time after that. Months later, after presenting a different project to channel, Christiaan retold Charl-Johan’s story and had the whole room in tears. At the end of that meeting, they told him that Kanarie will be made,” explains Jaco Nothnagel, marketing manager at Marche Media as well as 2nd AD and casting director of the film.

Olwagen shared the news with Lingenfelder, who happily agreed to come on board as co-writer and musical director of the film. Olwagen helped turn Lingenfelder’s tales into the film script.

Roelof Storm and Jaco Smit co-produced the film, with Smit additionally acting as first assistant director. The production team also included line producer Elmarie Botha, production manager Verene van der Heyden and Annemarie du Plessis, who acted as the production coordinator.

“It was a small team, with a limited budget, but we all knew from the start that we were part of something special. It was an extremely ambitious film – with big musical numbers, numerous locations and logistics to take care of. But the team was perfect for the job at hand. We couldn’t imagine doing it with anyone else,” says Nothnagel.


Schalk Bezuidenhout plays the lead character in the film, delivering a compelling performance as 18-year-old Johan Niemand (a character based on Charl-Johan Lingenfelder) from the small town of Villiersdorp.

Nothnagel says that Bezuidenhout was their first choice for the role of Johan Niemand: “We saw him do stand-up a few months before casting started, where he actually joked about being in the school choir. There were quite a few physical resemblances to Charl-Johan at that age, so we asked him to come and audition for the role, and he blew us away.

“He threw himself into the role… There were piano lessons and choreography sessions that he had to endure, but he always just wanted to give more and make sure that he was doing the story justice,” adds Nothnagel.

Additionally, the film features an array of local talent including Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Dawid Minnaar, Tinarie van Wyk-Loots, Johan and Lida Botha, Albert Maritz and Martelize Kolver.

Casting for the choir group proved to be more challenging than expected, says Nothnagel. “Initially we were to only cast the eight ‘lead’ characters. We soon realised that it would be a bit more complicated than that, for a few reasons. Firstly, we had to find actors that were experienced but would look the part. These boys were 17 or 18 when they were conscripted. Then, once we found the lead, we needed to be sure that, relative to each other, they will still look the part in terms of age. We went through about 13 rounds of auditions and call-backs until our ‘Bungalow 8’ were cast. Wolfgang (the love interest) was the last character to be cast.”

The Story

Kanarie tells the story of Johan Niemand, a young man with an emerging interest in creative performance and a love for British New Wave music. His unique interests don’t sit well with his male peers, which makes him a constant target for bullies at school.

In 1986, at 17 years of age, Johan, like many others before him, gets conscripted for military service. While serving, he auditions for the South African Defence Choir and gets accepted by the Kanaries.

Although the Kanaries are not called to the border, they undergo the same training as the rest of their military group, while also rehearsing a performance programme that they later tour the country with.

While on tour, members of the Kanaries are constantly reminded of their role in serving the country and representing the church. However, when Johan develops feelings for a fellow choir member, he begins questioning everything he knows about himself, including his sexuality, religion, and his role and purpose in a world of oppressive political structures.

“Marginalisation, identity, acceptance, oppression; Kanarie offers a different perspective set against a very problematic background in our country’s history. The film asks questions about toxic masculinity and the origin thereof in our society today. Many conscripts came back from the army changed, but never discussed it. On the flipside, the camaraderie in the army is something that you don’t find in any institution today. Finding your true self and being unapologetic about it probably stands central in the film,” says Nothnagel.

The Production

Kanarie was shot within five weeks at various locations in and around Cape Town, including Villiersdorp, where Charl-Johan Lingenfelder actually grew up. Budget constraints resulted in the team shooting their border scenes at Kaalbaskraal on the N7, instead of at the actual barracks in Valhalla, Pretoria.

DOP Chris Vermaak shot the film on the Arri Amira with Cooke lenses to enhance the 80s look and feel of the film. “It’s a lighter camera, and because it was all shot with Steadicam, it was the best choice, and also the best quality for what our budget allowed,” says Nothnagel.

Sound and Motion handled the sound design and final mix, while Madoc Post and AfterDark Post Production worked on online and grading, respectively.

The Accolades

The film won the Best LGBTQI film at the Cape Town International Film Market & Festival. Internationally, it was honoured with the Best International Film, Best Narrative Feature, and Best Director awards at the 31st Out On Film Festival in Atlanta, USA. Kanarie will continue its festival circuit run in 2019 at the QueerScreen Mardi Gras Film Festival in Sydney in February.

“All of the awards were really astounding. We are beyond proud of what the film has achieved. It proves that we are telling an important story and that the film might have a long life after local release,” comments Nothnagel.

Kanarie had its local release on 19 October at Ster-Kinekor cinemas across South Africa. An agreement to sell the film in various territories, excluding Africa, has been signed with Breaking Glass Pictures, who will be officially distributing Kanarie in North America from June this year.

“We are very excited about the possibility of the film being shown in these territories, especially the USA,” says Nothnagel.

“I think the army-element resonates with the Americans, but as I said, the fact that the story has so much heart, and that it tells such a personal, yet universal story, adds to the success of the film and how it has performed overseas,” he concludes.


Director: Christiaan Olwagen

Producers: Roelof Storm and Jaco Smit

Writer: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder

DOP: Chris Vermaak

Editor: Eva Du Preez

Sound: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder

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Gezzy S Sibisi
Gezzy S. Sibisi is a senior journalist at Screen Africa. She is experienced in print, broadcast and digital media. Her portfolio of work includes working as a lifestyle reporter as well as contributing business and education articles to The Times, Sowetan, and Daily Dispatch publications. As a freelancer, she has worked on content development for corporate newsletters, community newspapers, blogs and educational websites.


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