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Visiting a different Cape Town in uCarmen eKhayelitsha

November 3, 2011

Mark Dornford-May’s 2004 film uCarmen eKhayelitsha is a wonderful view into a Cape Town landscape much avoided/ignored by middle class or mainstream-touristy Cape Town. The film functions as an aural and visual tour one can take without leaving the safety and comfort of one’s couch. Plus, you get to see an unusual version of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’.

Although townships, satellite settlements or shanty towns are hardly uncommon around the globe, South African townships have many features that originate from the country’s apartheid history.  Townships like Khayelitsha are a unique explosion of multiple oppositions and identities, all competing for survival: the rural and the urban, tradition and modernity, ‘locals’ and foreigners or makwerekwere; traditional healing and modern medicine, cultural assimilation, difference and conflict; community warmth and individual desperation in the form of poverty, disease, violence and substance abuse.

Most significantly, ‘uCarmen’ represents Cape Town as an African city, something other Cape Town feature films often fail to do, tending to focus on ‘historic’ or more picturesque communities or landscapes. It is hard to imagine that most more affluent Cape Town inhabitants would really consider Khayelitsha as contributing towards Cape Town’s urban and cultural identity. The film itself, while situating itself in Cape Town, or on its periphery, presents its community as a distinct microcosm; a complicated place observed at close quarters but nevertheless a very far cry from the tourist-centric version of the Mother City.

Even though ‘uCarmen’ presents us with a landscape of Cape Town, it avoids most of the conventional panoramas and views. When the city and ‘the mountain’ do appear they are pictured behind a smoggy far-off haze, emphasizing the distance and the disconnection of the township from the town as well as a more industrial incarnation. The township itself is filmed at close quarters and the highways and surrounding Cape Flats neighbourhoods are filmed from afar. This notion of distance, and travel, is alluded to in the various iconographies present in the film which utilise the vocabulary of the urban and the industrial; of travel or public transportation. Some of these take the form of images of railway lines, trains, poles and stations; the multi-laned highway; minibus taxis and taxi ranks, the taxies veering down the N2 in the direction of town; the vibracrete fences that instead of keeping the township inside have been broken down in places, through which livestock are led to graze at the grassy sides of the highway and people and dogs enter and exit, or dart across the highway; the pedestrian bridges spanning the N2; the shacks haphazardly stacked teetering on one another on sandy dunes; the jumbled electrical wires criss-crossing above the dwellings.

The smaller details of what one could term the South African ‘township vernacular’ also establish a recognisable contemporary ‘township’ iconography, one that in the fashionable new South Africa has come to signify ‘township chic’ and that appears in postcards, magazines, tour and restaurant guide books and coffee table books, or anywhere around the V&A waterfront: barbershop signs, tin shacks the walls of which are covered with paper from tins and other common items, java print cloth and brightly coloured blankets, shebeen life, sheep head ‘smileys’ and other meals signalling the African exotic commodified for contemporary tourists seeking ‘the real’ SA experience.

The 'smiley'

As such even townships like Khayelitsha are not devoid of tourists. On the contrary, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has raved about a popular Gugulethu meat restaurant Mzolis and special township tours escort overseas visitors in safely by bus despite the occasional murder.

  1. Starsh permalink

    I see you’re from California? I’m moving to San Diego early next year. I must say I will miss SA. I drive past Khayelitsha every day and this was the first film that gave a flavour of ‘inside’. people I know are too terrified to visit. And the setting suited Carmen the opera too. The film won a Golden Bear.

  2. I am glad to see films about South Africa. After living there I’m in awe of the rich culture and troubles of this struggling nation. Great write-up!

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