Saturday, 20 June 2009
A group of underprivileged people form a choir, their lives transformed by music under the guidance of a charismatic leader. Sound familiar? Well this isn’t the television series about the Choir of Hard Knocks. Instead, it’s a feature documentary following a group of prisoners in Johannesburg’s largest and harshest prison. Their choir leader is a fellow inmate, Coleman, jailed for 24 years for armed robbery. He’s a plump and balding middle-aged man, with teeth missing. He readily admits that his love of luxury is what got him to trouble. But here in the prison he’s a changed man, a mentor and disciplinarian to the group of singers, young damaged men, whom he grooms to compete in the National Prisoner Choir Competition.
Among the group is Jabulani, painfully thin and scarred by knives and bullets, and very very angry. He’s reluctant to submit to authority, and of course he hates being locked up in a place where there are 40 inmates to a cell, and two small meals a day. We hear of terrible violence, of an eye being gouged out by a broken lightbulb, and of men cooped up from 3pm every afternoon until the next morning, with very little supervision. When Jabulani tells of his poverty-stricken childhood, however, of being hungry and bored and hopeless, we see that life outside is not that much better.
Filmed over four years, with remarkable access, by Australian journalist and filmmaker Andrew Davie, The Choir begins as a simple though illuminating look at a prison choir working towards a singing competition. The format, if not the setting, is familiar, formulaic even: the backstories of the participants, the practising, the nerves and anticipation, the moment of performance and finally, the announcement of the winners. The film could have concluded at this point, and it would still be a fine documentary. But the beauty and power of it lie in the fact that it continues down the track, years after that climax. What happens to Coleman and Jabulani after they are released? Can they live in freedom without falling back into crime? What kind of place is South Africa these days, and what hope is there for children living in the shanty-towns of the major cities? Despite the harsh realities depicted, The Choir never loses hope, and reveals in a fresh way the human need to group together to create meaning and beauty in the midst of devastation.
The Choir had a limited (Aust) national release and will be on SBS TV and DVD later this year. A version of this review appeared in edition 331 of The Big Issue magazine.