Sometimes amongst true horror, something incongruously beautiful can emerge and actually thrive. That unusual fact has perhaps never been depicted with such stunning clarity as it is in the deeply moving and enjoyably unsentimentalised documentary The Choir. Don’t let the title fool you: this isn’t about a group of Sunday school singers, or even a bunch of people who have experienced life’s hard knocks. The singers in this choir are literally living in hell.
Director Michael Davie (a Zimbabwe-born Aussie with a long history in television reportage who makes his feature debut here) throws the audience in at the deep end right from the beginning, introducing us to the casual horrors of South Africa’s broiling Leeukwop Prison, a mess of damaged, barely policed humanity where rape is an everyday occurrence and boys have their eyes gouged out with broken light bulbs. Nestled in amongst the nastiness, however, is an oasis of humanity. Lorded over by convicted armed robber and inveterate hard-man Coleman Mgogodlo, the choir provides not just a chance for the prisoners to sing, but also to temporarily escape the cruelty around them. It’s here that angry young man – but gifted singer – Jabulani Shabangu finds a new purpose in life.
Ready made for a feature film adaptation (Charles S. Dutton and Derek Luke – get ready to roll!), The Choir is directed with artful restraint by exciting talent Davie, and comes packed with moments of staggering power (a female counselor bravely tells a group of prisoners of her own rape, leading to a surprising response) and absolute joy.
Structured almost like a sports film (the choir competes in a big, climactic competition with other prison choirs), The Choir is as thrilling as it is emotionally engaging. This is a special film indeed: don’t miss it.
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.
Andrew L. Urban
Jabulani Shabangu, 19, is an unlikely choirboy. When we meet him, he has just been sentenced to serve seven years in one of South Africa’s toughest prisons for robbery.
He was raised in the slums of Soweto and has had a long but understandable career in crime. Its progress can be charted by the scars on his body. This ragged map begins with the signs of the broken leg he received as a 13-year-old when caught by members of a rival gang, and it goes on to encompass a network of bullet and stab wounds marking his face and torso.
But Shabangu is smart and he’s quick enough to realise that one way of surviving the dangers of the long nights in the cells is to score a berth on the prison’s most peaceable block – the dormitory occupied by its choir.
Michael Davie, who made this documentary, heard about the Leeukwop Prison choir when he was doing research for an earlier film. He has been working in Africa for years, making films for National Geographic about the killing of mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the heroin trade in Tanzania, the plight of street kids in Zimbabwe and the war in Sierra Leone. And he followed Shabangu’s story over six years, filming his gradual immersion in the life of the choir as it prepares to compete in a contest for prison choirs from all over South Africa.
The prison choirmaster is Coleman Mgogodlo, an avuncular recidivist in for robbing a bank without violence. His method of attack is to bluff the teller into believing he has a gun. He is an ebullient character and displays a canny benevolence.
When he auditions candidates he asks them to sing one song, but what matters to him more than pitch or melody is attitude. If a man shows he’s willing, he’s in. Then comes the lecture about keeping away from the prison’s bad boys and refraining from getting into fights and smuggling drugs.
Shabangu doesn’t need a lot of convincing. During his run of 16-hour nights in the cells, he has already seen a man whose eye has been gouged out with a broken light bulb. The choir is a sanctuary but closer acquaintance reveals that it offers something else – an incentive to make a worthwhile life for himself when he gets out of prison.
For much of the time Davie did his filming alone, and there is an ease and intimacy in the sequences of everyday prison life. The prisoners sing as they march out into the fields on work detail and the sight of their massed orange jumpsuits against the dusty landscape lends a strangely festive air to these scenes. Back in the prison, the guards, several of whom are women, join in the singing and the stomping that gets the choristers into the rhythm of the music.
Mgogodlo, whose marriage has long since disintegrated, finds himself in the paradoxical position of being asked for marital advice by one of the male guards. But the most affecting moments occur when a prison counsellor decides that there’s only one sure way of giving the men an insight into the anguish felt by a rape victim. She tells her own story and is rewarded for her candour and courage by their visible shock and their gratitude.
The film’s centrepiece is the national choir competition in Cape Town. The choristers gleefully anticipate their first taste of life outside the prison since their sentencing. When they arrive, the vitality and enthusiasm that greets them is enough to give the illusion that the whole thing has segued into an American college movie.
Davie is too much the realist to leave things there. Mgogodlo and Shabangu subsequently have their sentences reduced for good behaviour and we follow them on their rocky return to freedom.
But it’s an upbeat ending. Like the other choir of hard knocks, Leeukwop’s gives a soaring demonstration of the rejuvenating power of song.
**** Sandra Hall
Sing like you’re winning. Or else, all hope is lost
“If you are soft, you will become another man’s wife. If you fight back, he will stab you.”
The new Australian-made documentary The Choir is not just an inspirational documentary about the healing power of song.
It is also one of the most frightening and confronting films ever made about the prison experience.
Filmmaker Michael Davie spent more than four years visiting South Africa’s notorious Leeukwop Jail, a sprawling high-security facility on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
Courtesy of an astonishing level of co-operation from both the inmates and guards – none of whom look the type with much time for the cinematic arts – Davie captures a desperate existence few would wish on a fellow human being.
The central figure in the documentary is serial housebreaker Jabulani Shabangu. As the film begins, he is just 19 years of age and about to commence serving a seven-year sentence.
Really still only a boy, Shabangu is clearly scared out of his wits. As we become familiar with the pecking order and the power struggles running rife inside the Leeukwop, it is not hard to see why.
As one long-term resident bluntly puts it : “This place is not about rehabilitation. It is only about survival.”
Shabangu’s best shot at seeing out his time inside is landing a slot on the prison’s choir program, which carries the reputation of returning several of its members safely back into the outside world.
Once he achieves his ambition, Shabangu discovers a mountain of work ahead of him. The head of the choir, an inscrutable veteran inmate named Coleman Mgogodlo, is a harsh taskmaster who will use any tactic necessary to beat a voice into line.
In spite of the sweet sounds that dominate here, The Choir is resolutely tough stuff from start to finish.
**** Leigh Paatsch
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.
THE Choir is a testimony to the redemptive power of song, but it is a thoughtful film that does not take this potential for granted.
Part of its strength undoubtedly comes from the time that Zimbabwe-born Australian filmmaker Michael Davie spent on the project: for more than five years, he filmed at South Africa’s Leeuwkop Prison, exploring the role that the prison’s choir plays in the lives of its inmates.
He focuses on two articulate figures: Jabulani, a confident young man jailed for housebreaking; and Coleman, who is serving a long sentence for bank robbery, and who runs the choir with avuncular authority.
The choral performances, whether spontaneous or rehearsed, are exhilarating elements in an engrossing film.
There is — and this could easily have been a cliche — a prison choir competition.
But Davie doesn’t make the contest the end of the film; he stays with his subjects long enough to record the challenges they face after they are released.
***1/2 Phillippa Hawker
Both a victim and perpetrator of South Africa’s culture of violence and poverty, by the time Jabulani Shabangu turned 17 he’d been shot twice, stabbed and had his leg broken by a crowbar.
At 19, he was sentenced to seven years jail for housebreaking. In Leeuwkop Prison, near Johannesburg, he found his voice, a sense of purpose and a new direction thanks to the prison choir and an unlikely mentor/father figure in a guy who was serving 24 years for armed robbery.
Jabulani’s inspiring story is superbly chronicled in Australian filmmaker Michael Davie’s documentary The Choir. Granted remarkable access to the prison, its staff and inmates, Davie spent four years tracking Jabulani, his mentor Coleman Mgododlo and the choir. The country’s biggest prison, Leeuwkop is a grim institution, where drug-taking, rape and violence are rampant. “If you’re soft you’ll become another man’s wife,” one inmate warns. “If you fight back he’ll stab you.”
“This place is not about rehabilitation, it’s about survival,” says another. Against all odds, the choir gives its members the chance to show they are capable of changing for the better, and a camaraderie which helps insulate them from the worst criminals. As the choirmaster, Coleman is a tough and demanding teacher, bawling out unruly members or giving them a thump. When he’s first locked up, Jabulani is angry and bitter. His outlook starts to change under Coleman’s tutelage, but he messes up by getting caught trafficking in drugs and is tossed into solitary.
When he gets out, he begs Coleman to let him back in the choir. Coleman agrees, but warns this is his last chance. The film follows the jailbirds as they rehearse for the National Prisoner Choir Competition in Cape Town. The singing and multi-part harmonies are truly wonderful, sending shivers down my spine. When they sing “We shall overcome some day,” you believe that will hold true for at least some inmates when they rejoin the outside world. One of the warders admits he felt like crying when he realised “music has the power to heal.”
The rewards for Coleman and Jabulani were tangible, as both were granted early release for good behaviour. The young man’s next challenges are to find a job, re-connect with his six-year-old daughter, and stay out of trouble. As the film ends, it seems he has a better than even chance of succeeding.
It’s another impressive effort from the Zimbabwe-born Davie, whose previous works have investigated subjects such as the brutal abuse of women in Pakistan, the plight of war refugees in the Balkans, and the child soldiers of Africa.
Co-produced by National Geographic Films and Australia’s Essential Viewing, the docu deserves to find a wide audience on Nat Geo channels around the world. It was gratifying to see The Choir was warmly received in South Africa, winning the audience award for best film at the 6th Annual Tri Continental Film Festival in Durban in 2008.