By Katie Walsh | The Playlist February 4, 2013 at 7:01PM
In 2003, college student Billy Raftery took a surf trip to South Africa and made a stop in the city of Durban, finding more than just waves—he stumbled upon the subject for a documentary in Ariel, one the thousands of street kids who live on Durban’s Point Road. “Angels in Exile,” narrated by Charlize Theron, is the cinematic culmination of that project, 10 years in the making, but it certainly isn’t the end of it, by any means. Raftery founded the non-profit organization Children Rise in order to help fund his film, and to continue work to manifest actual change in the lives of these children. “Angels in Exile” represents a new model for the social change documentary, where the activism and the filmmaking are inextricably linked.
However, that’s not to say that the filmmaking comes second. Raftery has captured a deeply intimate and realistic look at the lives of these street kids and the circumstances that dictate their situations. The film follows Ariel and Zuleika, two street kids who are caught up in a vicious cycle that includes drug abuse and crime. Ariel is extremely open and articulate about his situation. He speaks frankly about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his step-grandfather, which drove him onto the streets, and the addiction to huffing glue that keeps him from going back home. Most of the street kids are addicted to glue, huffing to forget their hunger, pain, and sadness.
The street smart and sassy Zuleika is in an even more treacherous circumstance. She’s only 11, and she refuses to go live with her sister because she’s in love with her boyfriend Zakes, another street kid. Zuleika is HIV-positive, and she’s not sure who gave her the disease, possibly her stepfather who raped her. Her situation is so delicate that as a viewer, you worry for her when she chooses the dangers of the streets again and again. This concern comes through on the filmmaker’s end as well. Raftery doesn’t often insert himself into the film; he appears on camera infrequently, though the kids often address him by name, and occasionally he asks concerned questions of the kids, as they continue to make choices that put them in danger.
The third main character in the film is Umthombo, an outreach organization in Durban founded by Tom Hewitt, a Brit, and his wife Mandi, who used to be a street kid herself for a time. The organization is also largely made up of former street kids, who counsel their former friends, and try to get them the treatment and housing that they need. Mandi takes a special interest in Zuleika, knowing that because of her health issues, and as a female, her situation is much more high stakes. She tries to get her to live at home with her sister, but Zuleika continues to run away, back to the freedom and friendship and acceptance she has found on the streets. Mandi and the other members of Umthombo have the utmost patience; they take the long-term approach to this problem, wanting the kids to make their own decisions, knowing that those are the most powerful and empowering. This is in sharp contrast to the Durban police, who round up the street kids when big international conferences are in town and truck them 50 miles away to be out of sight, out of mind.
The film captures these lives over the course of many years, as they deal with heartbreaks and ups and downs. As a filmmaker, Raftery is granted unprecedented access to their lives, and the street kids are candid and unabashed around him. When he does appear on camera, briefly, it’s easy to understand why: he’s gregarious and friendly, open. He’s not just a filmmaker, he’s their friend. He captures all the harsh realities of their lives, the stabbings and street fights and conditions they live in, but it’s not an overly sentimental or manipulative piece. It deals with tragedy and desperation, but it’s a clear-eyed and straightforward depiction of these issues and events in their lives.
One of the main issues of the social activism documentary has always been the role of the filmmaker—do you remain behind the camera and capture these issues for others to see, thus bringing larger awareness to the issue? Or do you break that fourth wall and hold out a helping hand? “Angels in Exile” asks “Why can’t you do both”? By coupling the non-profit organization with the film, the filmmakers hope to use the film as tool as a way spread the word about their work, and about the work of partner organizations like Umthombo. The film is also a project of Act 4, a film development and production company that focuses on socially conscious and politically relevant content, hoping to create a new model for social change in working with these kinds of documentaries that spur audience members to ask, “How can we help?” “Angels in Exile” is a compelling project to lead the way in forging this new path of possibility for documentary filmmaking. [B+]