July 1, 2008

South African Idols: The Singing Orphans of ‘We Are Together’

From Paul Taylor's <em>We Are Together</em> (Thina Simunye)

All first-time director Paul Taylor wanted to do was "touch people with this story." He did much more than that. With credit cards and loans, Taylor went from film student to celebrated filmmaker in a little over three years. He also helped raise over £250,000 (about $496,000 US) for the children in Agape, an impoverished orphanage in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Centered on 12-year-old Slindile Moya and her extended family, We Are Together (Thina Simunye) tells Agape's incredible story. The British director follows the orphanage's kids, all remarkably talented singers, as they embark on a fundraising tour; they had recorded a CD with pop star Zwai Bala. Their dreams come true and Taylor got the happy ending he deserved. He was also gifted with a wonderful, heart-felt score, sublimely performed. It doesn't just drive the narrative and set the mood, it makes us care.

Taylor first met the captivating kids at Agape as a volunteer in South Africa, taking time out from his film studies at Bournemouth University. Seeing the story's potential, the student-filmmaker scraped together what money he could upon his return,  and found himself back on a plane at the earliest opportunity. Three years, many trips and a few loans later, his filmmaking journey was complete--a journey from South Africa to New York and back that taught the filmmaker as much about filmmaking as it did about himself, and culminated in a documentary with a very real connection to the issues at hand.

Although Taylor could never be quite sure where the story was leading, or how it was going to end, his commitment and perseverance eventually paid off--a lesson for any first-time director. When a UK tour was cancelled and Sofiso, Slindile's brother, succumbed to the ravages of AIDS, the future looked bleak. Four months later, fire devastated the orphanage, and the children were forced to live in shipping containers. Taylor knew that if he waited long enough, "Something positive would happen." He was right: Alicia Keys invited the kids to perform with her and Paul Simon on stage in New York. The concert raised £60,000 (about $119,000 US) and the orphanage was rebuilt. Following this, a worldwide fundraising tour was launched, and a successful second album released.

With 160 hours of footage shot, Taylor started knocking on doors again. "We were complete unknowns, still film students, and everybody was understandably cautious," Taylor recalls. "Most people just didn't want to take the risk. Luckily, Jess Search at BritDoc, run by Channel 4's Documentary Foundation, had a lot of foresight and took a leap of faith." It enabled Taylor and his producer Teddy Liefer to get award-winning editor Masahiro Hirakubo on board.

Translating hours of footage meant six months in the edit, and the director had to fight from including too much information about the bigger picture, or the lunacy of anti-retro viral drugs politics in South Africa. "We didn't think that it would add any power," Taylor maintains. "The biggest power of this story was its emotional resonance. Narrowing it down to one main character, one family, shows how these issues are affecting people on an emotional level." And that's exactly where the power of this film lies--in its ability to connect on that raw, emotional level, thanks in no small part to the children's sumptuous and moving harmonies.

"The music is critical in this film because it is very important to the characters," says Taylor. "Especially for Slindile, whose parents were very talented singers known in the community for their voices. They taught Slindile how to sing, so now song is the way that she remembers them." As one of the characters states in the film, "We sing when we're happy. We sing when we're sad. It's a healing thing."

Many of the children are blessed with quite extraordinary voices. Slindile sings in an deep, soulful, almost husky voice, bursting with intensity. Seven-year-old Mbali is much higher in register, and simply mesmerizing. Their increasingly natural and accomplished performances fuel what is already a gripping narrative, helping transform a tough, uncompromising subject into a joyous and uplifting debut film. Thanks to Taylor donating all profits from the film to the children at Agape, they now to go to a better school and their future looks decidedly brighter. Nonku has given up her job as a domestic worker and the enchanting Slindile is training to be a nurse. Taylor has even been funding extra tuition for them. How tragic it is that Slindile parents aren't around to see it. "The only thing I miss is being able to tell Mum when good things happen," she says in the film.

 

We Are Together, the winner of the first IDA/Alan Ett Music Documentary Award,  will be distributed theatrically in the US this May through Palm Pictures.

Christiaan Harden is a documentary filmmaker and writer currently developing broadcast documentaries for Spectrecom Films in London, England.

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