2007 is proving to be an unprecedented year for documentaries, and only five of them will be chosen for this year’s Oscars. Although the documentary field is often dominated by films that do well with the public, like March of the Penguins or An Inconvenient Truth, it nonetheless turns out hundreds of films worth seeing that never get the kind of exposure they need.
There are two unforgettable documentaries currently making the rounds at film festivals that have a similar theme and focus but couldn’t be more different nonetheless. Both films depict children who’ve been orphaned by either war or disease but who have found a way out of the misery through music and dance.
The first of these is Paul Taylor’s We Are Together, the sometimes heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting journey of a group of children who sing to raise money for the Agape orphanage in their village. Their beautiful voices take them all the way to London to make a CD and hold performances as fundraisers. Eventually they attract the attention of Alicia Keys and Paul Simon, which brings them all the way to the streets of Manhattan. How surreal, to travel from their South African home to the metropolis.
The film centers around an orphaned family of siblings living in South Africa, three of whom have gone to live at Agape, which is close enough to their family home to travel back and forth for visits. They are trying to move themselves forward with education and employment, and there is no doubt their lives are hard. One of their brothers is weak and dying of AIDS. There aren’t enough rooms, let alone beds, to house them all. Agape gives the attending children a bunk, three meals a day, education, and of course, the gift of song.
At the heart of the film is 12-year-old Slindile. With a powerhouse voice, a warm smile, and an inherent confidence, she contradicts the image of the generic sad-eyed African the media portrays. What we see instead is a family that holds itself together, helps one another, and above all, sings. One of the music teachers brought in to help ready the kids for their CD explains it well when he says that South Africans are always singing. They don’t have much in the way of entertainment, so they all sing together at every available opportunity. The songs are passed down through the generations, and because of this film, we get a great chance to see just how important songs are to this family and to their culture as a whole.
We Are Together is nothing less than one of the best films of the year.
If you’re interested in reading more about the film or finding out when you can see it, go to wearetogether.org. You can also hear the songs they recorded or buy the CD.
The filmmakers are donating their profits from the film to the children of the Agape orphanage. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is.
The second film is called War/Dance and this time it takes place in Uganda amid unimaginable violence and strife. Where AIDS was the silent killer in We Are Together, there is no doubt about who the killers are in War/Dance. They are referred to by the children as “the rebels” and they are known for beheading men and women and kidnapping their children, often turning them into child soldiers. The refugee camp in the film is packed to the brim with too many people exiled from their own country.
The children tell unbelievable stories of brutality against their loved ones. One girl recounts having to identify her mother’s head being pulled out of a clay pot. And still, they prepare for a musical competition that seems to be the very last thread holding their sanity together. Yes, it will rip your heart out, but you’ll swear you’ve never seen anything or heard anything more beautiful in your life.
War/Dance and We Are Together are winning awards left and right, and either or both will likely make it to the Oscars next year. Hopefully, they will gain an audience whether that happens or not.