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Angels in the Dust (2007)

Unrated | | Documentary | 14 September 2007 (USA)
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Marion Cloete, a university-trained therapist, along with her husband and two daughters, fearlessly walked away from a privileged life in a wealthy Johannesburg suburb to establish ... See full summary »

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Marion Cloete, a university-trained therapist, along with her husband and two daughters, fearlessly walked away from a privileged life in a wealthy Johannesburg suburb to establish Boikarabelo (formerly Botshabelo), an extraordinary village and school that provide shelter, food, and education to more than 550 South African children. Written by Anonymous

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14 September 2007 (USA)  »

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Over-insistently 'worthy' but still emotional and worthwhile
10 June 2008 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

Angels in the Dust is a moving documentary about an orphanage for African kids with AIDS.

Sounds familiar? There are echoes of We Are Together, the film that won the Audience Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and a host of other awards. Both deal with AIDS orphans, but Angels in the Dust seems primarily about the life of a woman who gives up her life and savings to make a difference. Marion Cloete, her husband Con, and twin daughters Leigh and Nicole, between them look after some 500 children. Food, clothing, education. And if they get sick, Marion gets retrovirals for them.

Sadly, African AIDS is yesterday's news. And when we do think about it, maybe we spend more thought on financial assistance than doing anything else. Which goes to the heart of Angels in the Dust. This is the third film by award-winning director, Louise Hogarth. And her third film about AIDS. Will this one make a difference? Or just a few extra shillings thrown at the problem.

I suspend judgement, wait for the agenda. Will Marion be a latter-day Mother Theresa? Are we simply to praise them, say what wonderful people she and her husband evidently are? My own reaction was, if these great philanthropists can do this, how can others follow in their footsteps. Give me details! The emotional core of Angels in the Dust is the heartbreaking tales told so matter-of-factly. It's compelling testimony. Child rape. Forced prostitution. Both commonplace. Victims not even in their teens recounting horrific stories. Folk tales like, "If you sleep with a virgin, your HIV will disappear." They add to government-created myths about dietary cures. In many areas, people don't have even basic schooling. Destitute mothers sell daughters. Then deny it has happened. Marion wants a mum's permission to get her child tested for HIV. The girl requests it herself. But Mother refuses. Tells Marion, "Mention the rape again and I will poison the child!"

Marion and Con are from an activist background, patriotic to their (white) South African heritage. "We survive colonialism. We survive apartheid. We come out and we've got HIV." She is furious over government claims. Protests take place outside the Department of Health. "Eat beetroot, garlic, lemon and olive oil," the Department tells the people. It is the official 'cure'. And this is the message: voluntary groups like Marion's are many, but volunteer groups alone are inefficient at producing change; because what the country needs is leadership.

Some of the film raises questions I'd have liked answered. We see Marion teaching in a class of maybe 20 kids. We see Marion out in the community. We see Marion busy counselling. How, in a flock of such size, is she doing all this? A woman of indomitable energy and courage, yes. But the film portrays her as almost a one-woman army. Helpers are sidelined. I am a little wary of her teaching children to visualise angels. Religious brainwashing? But, to her credit, Marion is a university-trained therapist. She teaches children to cope with the death all around. In one scene, they are 'making a wish' in a situation where a religionist would probably be teaching them, 'pray to Jesus'. Overall, Marion is very respectful of autonomy. I am prepared to give her many benefits of the doubt. Yet it still sounds preachy at times. A story about orphaned elephants, aimed at children (off camera), is a patronising way of opening the film.

The parent company website, Participant Media, gives access to a balanced overview, although the only option to 'get involved' seems to be 'donate' (what happened to campaigning?) As the film is a tribute to the Cloetes' work, I wanted to see more of the practical challenges, like finance, security, and training, facing anyone who wanted to set up similar projects. Participant is about providing, "entertainment that inspires and compels social change." (Films include Syriana, Charlie Wilson's War, and North Country, to An Inconvenient Truth and Standard Operating Procedure.) If Angels in the Dust inspires change, it will have done its job. Is the South African Government's own horrendous attitude to AIDS a matter of urgency for Westminster foreign policy, for instance? Web addresses, in case you miss them, are www.participantmedia.com and TakePart.com/AngelsInTheDust.

There is a temptation, as a reviewer, to say, "This is a wonderful film. Because it espouses a worthy cause." Many will be angry if I don't say that. But it is not my job to say whether kids are worthy of help. Which they are. Or whether you should donate some money now. (And if you want to, please do.) You want to know whether you should see the film. I can't recommend it as strongly as We Are Together, which was inspirational in its cinematic approach as well as for the goals of its children (whose education focused on song).

A week after I saw Angels in the Dust, newsreels are flooded with images of thousands of Ethiopian kids also with flies on their faces. Famine, as world food prices rocket. And, consequently, disease and death. Just like 'angels' of the dust. But I'm still more worried that my neighbour's kids may cut their feet on broken glass on the pavement. They are closer to home. That's their distinction. African children, very sadly, compete with each other over having worse tales to tell. The main value of Angels in the Dust may be as a document to inspire politicians rather than as a film to inspire you to part with admission money. Or not. I hope you enjoy it if you see it. I hope even more that something is done.


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