Jabulani Shabangu and a group of fellow inmates are battling to survive in Leeukwop Prison - South Africa's largest prison. Jabulani is rebellious and angry until he meets Coleman, a wily old bank robber, who recruits him for the prison choir. Jabulani rises in the ranks and leads the choir to victory at the National Prisoner Choir Competition. In time and with setbacks, the brotherhood of choristers, along with Coleman's fatherly wisdom, transform Jabulani's life and give him the tools he needs to face his victims and to survive behind bars - as well as in the world outside when he is released.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
A joint production between Australia's Essential Viewing and National Geographic Films, The Choir is remarkable, riveting cinema, taking us inside Leeukwop Prison - a place you don't want to go, except via the camera. With astonishing levels of access and filmed over four years, Michael Davie documents prison life through the eyes of teenage robber, Jabulani, who shows us his many scars, tells us his savage life story and gradually reinvents himself - with the help of the prison choir.
Music has the power to heal, as one of the guards admits; elaborating on the notion, a prisoner explains how he found his initial anger giving way to his discovery of a gift - for song.
We're familiar with stories about the quest to win at competitions, whether it's spelling or dancing or singing; but here, there is even more at stake than usual. As we watch scarred faces mouth the words of a song and the magic of blended voices gives life to hope, we can see what the filmmakers have done: they've captured the essence of hope which gives human nature its unique place in nature.
But the film also glimpses inside some of its subjects, their private thoughts and feelings, their recognition of how they've changed. All that makes the film rich, textured and compelling. And as we follow Jabulani on his release (5 years early for good behaviour) we realise the stark realities of his life have not been greatly changed. But he has. It is truly a life changing film.
Review by Louise Keller:
Redemption through music is at the heart of this heart-jolting documentary set in a harsh, dangerous and unforgiving prison in Johannesburg where prisoners' focus is not rehabilitation but survival. While full credit goes to Michael Davie, who directed, produced, wrote and shot this extraordinary insight, credit must also be given to the immense courage shown by the participating prisoners, whose honesty and willingness to reveal their vulnerabilities is humbling. I was moved to tears by this wonderful film that is simultaneously tragic and uplifting, while the beauty of the natural voices that harmonise intuitively lifts our spirits into a higher realm.
'Freedom is not a physical state of being. You must free yourself within yourself; that's what music does for us,' says Coleman, who is jailed for 24 years for armed robbery, and who runs the choir in the overcrowded South African Leeuwkop Prison filled with drug user, abuser and rapists. We meet and hear various members of the choir, like newcomer Jabulani, imprisoned for 7 years for armed robbery. 'You get killed or you kill,' he says. They wear a bright orange prison uniform and most of the inmates have broken or missing teeth and scars - both physical and emotional. Coleman is an inspiration as he councils his fellow prisoners to be a positive example not only in their singing but in their entire existence.
The environment is dire. Food is short and it is not surprising to find spit or urine in it. There are 40 inmates to every cell; once the door is locked, anything can happen (there's a distressing story about a man whose eye is gauged out with a lightbulb). Singing allows the prisoners to 'forget they are in prison' and gives them the badly needed self esteem to show they are still worthy human beings. We also hear from the warden, who agrees that music has the power to heal and who is overcome by emotions when hearing the magnificent voices. One of the most moving scenes is when Tabea, the female prison guidance counsellor tells the inmates her intimate story and the circumstances of how she became a victim of rape. The response from the group of convicted criminals, who had previously revealed their stories, is astounding. Tears flow. They hug her and thank her for sharing.
And of course, there is the singing, and the lead up and preparation for the National Prisoner Choir Competition. There are nerves, tension and excitement and then it is time for the show, which is unforgettable and so moving. 'For the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like to do something right,' Coleman says. But the film does not end with the highs from the concert. Davie paints a far more realistic picture, giving an insight into what happens afterwards. This is a film that gives us hope and lets our hearts sing.
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CHOIR, THE (M)
CAST: Documentary with Jabulani Shabangu, Coleman Mgogodlo, Tabea Bohali, Richmond Febana, Thabo Molahli
PRODUCER: Michael Davie, Chris Hilton
DIRECTOR: Michael Davie
SCRIPT: Michael Davie
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Carlos Carvalho, Michael Davie
EDITOR: Ben Deacon, David Lourie, Karin Steininger
MUSIC: Felicity Foxx
PRODUCTION DESIGN: n/a
RUNNING TIME: 82 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Gil Scrine
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Sydney: June 4, 2009; Melbourne: July 16, 2009; other states to follow