Produced by James Egan ’72. Los Angeles: Wild at Heart Films, Dream Out Loud Films and Parti­cipant Productions, 2007 (in theaters), 2008 (on DVD). 94 minutes.

Elephant with children
Marion Cloete (in green) teaches children in her orphanage about
elephant calves whose parents were killed by poachers.

Review by Eric Glustrom '07

Marion Cloete stands before a crowd of wide-eyed South Africanchildren. She explains that poachers killed off the hundreds of elephants that used to roam the plains in the region where Boikarabelo, their orphanage, now stands. Only the adult elephants were taken, leaving the babies on their own. The children, even the younger ones, follow the analogy: many of their own parents were taken by AIDS.

Marion and her husband, Con, are South Africans who gave up their life in Johannesburg to build Boikarabelo, home to 550 children who’ve been affected by AIDS. Angels in the Dust is the story of the Cloetes, the story of the children they’ve adopted and the story of South Africa’s youth. James Egan ’72, the producer of Angels, lived in Boikarabelo for a month while making the film.

Angels gracefully weaves in gripping accounts of the children as it follows the daily lives of Marion and Con. Lillian, who is about 10 years old, explains to the camera that she was raped when she was younger. Her mother denies her story; she is ashamed. Lillian now stays with Marion. Marion drives another one of the children, Virginia, to her mother. Marion sees the meeting as a chance for mother and daughter to reconcile, a necessary step for Virginia, whose mother sold her for sex, to move forward. Yet Virginia’s mother, like Lillian’s, denies the claims. The film follows Marion through the prairies to a young man named Thabo. He is HIV positive. Marion wants to help Thabo receive treatment from the local hospital. Lying on the ground, he is too weak to talk. His parents refuse Marion’s offer of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs for him. Bound by tradition, they permit only herbal treatments.

This herbal treatment is consistent with the recommendation of the minister of health of South Africa, who recently made a public statement claiming “beetroot, garlic, olive oil and lemon” should be used instead of ARVs. On camera, Marion’s frustration is clear. She interrupts the argument to call for a bucket for Thabo’s vomit. Every day she witnesses the consequences of the country’s unwillingness to let go of traditional beliefs. Sleeping with a virgin is also believed to be a cure for AIDS, explaining why so many of South Africa’s youth, like Lillian, are HIV positive. Thabo’s previous four girlfriends all died of HIV. Marion refers to him as the “HIV serial killer.”

Marion teaches the children to scream into pillows to release their pain. On a safari, they watch a baby giraffe timidly cross a road to find its mother. Marion tells the children, “See guys, this is how life is. Looks scary, but once you start doing it, it’s not so scary.”

Egan, founder and CEO of Wild at Heart Films, made Angels with Dream Out Loud Films and Participant Productions, the same outfit that brought us Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Angels debuted on Sept. 10, 2007, and has raised more than $100,000 for the orphanage. Egan’s goal is $1 million.
The documentary was released in 15 cities in the United States and has won several awards, including the special jury prize for best documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival. On Dec. 1, which is World AIDS Day, the film was shown in the New Orleans school system and at 35 universities. “People come away with a sense of hope,” Egan says. “The spirit of the children and how they deal with their own situations give people a sense of hope in their own lives.”

Angels elegantly portrays the AIDS epidemic through the children of Boikarabelo, allowing the viewer to understand the disease from the perspective of those living it. AIDS is not characterized by staggering numbers and predictions, but instead by the lives to be rebuilt and struggles endured.

Glustrom is founder and co-executive director of Educate!, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to youth in Uganda and Rwanda. His 2005 documentary, Dream Deferred, follows several Educate! students in Africa.

Photo courtesy of Dream Out Loud Films. 

Tags:  Africa  AIDS  documentary  Glustrom  Egan