Winningly delving into the arcane details of South Africa’s Cape Malay choir scene, rousing music docu “The Silver Fez” follows a classic David vs. Goliath struggle for the titular trophy, top prize of a famous annual competition. Helmer Lloyd Ross, a leading figure of the 1980s anti-apartheid rock underground, presents — with all the drama, suspense and human interest of a fictional feature — the rivalry between upstart challengers the Continentals, led by out-of-work house painter Abubakar Kaatjie Davids, and four-time champs the Starlites, owned and managed by wealthy businessman Mogamat Zain Hadji Bucks Benjamin. International broadcasters and fest programmers should take note.
The members of the all-male Cape Malay choirs are the Muslims of the impoverished Cape Flats neighborhoods who sing a repertoire as rich and varied as their bloodlines. Belonging to a choir offers pride and a shared goal to these men, who live in a place ridden with unemployment and crime. The choir is also a community that serves as an alternate family.
Rehearsing year-round, the choirs prepare for the March competition in which more than 50 ensembles are judged on overall appearance and precision marching as well as repertoire. Teams with the most money have a distinct advantage, able to recruit and pay professional musicians to swell their ranks and to buy the sharpest-looking uniforms.
Banjo-playing Kaatjie used to be under contract to Hadji Bucks, but put out by Bucks’ attempt to limit where he could play, Kaatjie decides to start his own competitive choir. When Bucks uses his limitless resources to persuade Kaatjie’s best friend to switch ensembles, the rivalry between the choirs becomes as much about revenge as it is about music.
Even as things get heated, multihyphenate Ross keeps music front and center in the docu. He features numerous rehearsals, as well as explanations from the musicians regarding unique aspects of the repertoire, such as the comic songs and the melancholy Nederlandse liederen, aka Dutch songs, that blend Arabic quarter-notes with Western instrumental melodies.
With seemingly unlimited access to his charismatic subjects, Ross plays fair and does not stack the deck against Hadji Bucks, whose win-at-all-costs philosophy is contrasted with the scrappy players gathered around Kaatjie for the love of the sport. Nor does Ross ignore the distaff side, incorporating often-wistful commentary from the wives and mothers of the musicians.
Made with little money but plenty of heart, the HD-lensed pic boasts lively, mobile camerawork and quality sound. With the subjects speaking a blend of English and Afrikaans (sometimes within the same sentence), the pic would benefit from subtitling throughout.