Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Angels in the Dust

Ninety-four minutes on AIDS in Africa might sound like a Bono-Jesse Helms-style guilt trip. Frankly, that is part of what Angels in the Dust is (trailer here), passing along buzz-killing information like: “By the year 2010, 100 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa will be infected with the disease and 40 million children will be orphaned.” Fortunately, Louise Hogart’s new documentary is more than a well-intentioned power-point presentation of factoids. It actually introduces the audience to some people making a difference.

Marion Cloete and her loyal husband Con opened Botshabelo (now called Boikarabelo), a home and school for AIDS orphans one hundred miles north of Johannesburg. If one were casting a Hollywood version of the Cloetes you might think Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins. Marion Cloete, a self-described activist, was the prime mover behind their orphans’ village, enlisting her husband and their two daughters into her labor of love.

While nothing particularly out of the ordinary for the Cloetes is documented in Angels, the stories told by the children are absolutely harrowing by any standards. Many had suffered from rape and violent crime, in addition to contracting HIV/AIDS. For her part, Cloete is a remarkably comforting presence in their lives. She resembles everyone’s favorite elementary school teacher, but she is tough too.

Cloete can be blunt. Soon after ministering to a man suffering with AIDS, she charts his destructive wake, saying: “as his partners die, he moves on. He’s a serial killer.” The audience also sees she is not afraid to call out an abusive and neglectful mother. Refreshingly though, Cloete is sensitive enough to send the cameras away at certain moments, putting empathy above ego.

If there is anyone who truly incurs the wrath of Marion Cloethe, it is Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the ANC’s Minister of Health. She has been the flashpoint for criticism of the Mbeki administration’s AIDS policy, which has only recently, and begrudgingly, accepted the link between HIV and AIDS. Dr. Manto is also infamous for having more enthusiasm for her nutritional prescriptions over anti-retro viruses (AVR’s) as treatment for AIDS. Cloethe complains: “olive oil, beet-root and cabbage and garlic . . . if we had followed this regimen [their student] Virginia would have been dead by now.”

While not perfectly paced, Angels is a compelling film. Director Hogarth does not bring much in the way of a distinct visual style, opting instead for a simple reportorial approach. She does effectively capture the personalities of her subjects. The film is also notable for its soundtrack, which includes original songs by Simphiwe Dana, a South African vocalist who blends aspects of afro-pop, R&B, and nu-jazz. (At least the cool music in Angels can count as fun.)

Angels is definitely an advocacy film, but it is actually not overly politicized, instead maintaining a focus on the human drama of the Cloetes and their charges. It opens in New York this Friday at the City Cinema Village East.