By Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

Arriving, perhaps unwittingly, to correct one stereotype and confirm another is the Berlinale Special film BREATHE UMPHEFUMLO, the fourth feature from director Mark Dornford-May.

His characters are African, poor, and one has a terminal disease. But—wonders!—they sing opera. Nevertheless, the heavier weight of the association of poverty with Africanness skewers the operatic goodwill.

(South) Africans singing opera is familiar territory for Dornford-May who scored the Golden Bear with U-CARMEN EKHAYELITSHA, his adaptation of Bizet's “Carmen“. In BREATHE UMPHEFUMLO, highly competent performers sing in Xhosa Puccini's acclaimed opera “La Bohème“. Four young people go through life in Khayelitsha, buoyed by the assurance of their specialness and the intoxications of youth. One speaks of future stardom, another is called a diva; they all find out that life happens without regard for dreams, without regard for youth.

The stereotype is not Dornford-May's doing. Based on “La Bohème“, Puccini's tragic opera, death, disease and poverty are unavoidable in any retelling. Yet BREATHE UMPHEFUMLO is problematic, if for beginning on July 16, the date in 1976, when protests against Apartheid spread through South Africa, leaving a multitude of deaths in its wake. Somehow the virtue of a narrative and environmental specificity is burdened by an existing stereotype. And the unavoidable result is that Africa remains the land alloyed with violence.

A talented director, Donford-May's film has great photography—the grit of the suburbs is palpable. His actors are about as able to pull off fine acting as much as is possible when it appears one is yawning in another's face. Unsurprisingly it is when the actors shed the western singing for some South African song and dance that the screen bursts into pixels of joy, separate from the stridency of opera in Xhosa. But who can blame them? South is not exactly opera country.

The casualty of every adaptation is suspense. So deprived, the film comes out announcing to its audience that Khayelitsha is one of the worst hit places with tuberculosis. People still die of that disease. In BREATHE UMPHEFUMLO, one wishes a continent didn't have to.