Dir. Paul Taylor. UK. 2006. 86minsThe young singers in We Are Together (Thina Simunye) are some of the estimated 1.2m orphans in South Africa today, most of whom lost their parents to AIDS-related illnesses. The motivational documentary by Paul Taylor observed them singing and struggling over three years.
The themes of We Are Together will be familiar to the audience that has watched Sarafina, Spellbound, and the aid campaigns built on songs like We Are The World. With HBO distribution, and the Cadillac Award, Tribeca's audience prize, this earnest documentary can expect a broad audience on cable television, with a long tour on the festival circuit before that.
An uplifting film, it could also become a staple of HIV education programs, giving it international shelf life. The charming choir won over the audience on opening night at Tribeca, an indication of marketing possibilities at events around the world.
We Are Together will be competing in the marketplace with other motivational tales of African children overcoming adversity: WarDance by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix (set in war-torn northern Uganda) is only the latest new entry into this field. Yet Paul Taylor's film stands above others in the field for its unsentimental tone and its portraits of strong children in the face of a plague. Their young lives are still very much a work in progress. Watching your family die of an AIDS-related illness is a little more daunting than losing a spelling bee with your parents in the front row.
Shot at the Agape Orphanage in rural KwaZulu Natal, We Are Together focuses on the extended Moya family, largely through the eyes and voice of Slindile, who was 12 when Paul Taylor began filming them.
Almost all the interviews are in Zulu, with subtitles. The orphanage was founded by Slindile's grandmother, who offers pithy unsentimental reflections of hope and insight from time to time. There are few jobs in this barren place, and the family is desperately poor. Because of music, they are more fortunate than most victims of the AIDS plague.
Slindile and her brothers and sisters are talented singers, and Taylor's film shifts between watching them survive as a scarred family unit and chronicling their progress as a choir.
The parallel story to the rehearsals, bonding and growth of the choir is the fate of Sifiso Moya, suffering from HIV in the village where the Maya children were born, and whose condition worsens as his family sits in despair.
Poignant scenes of his brothers and sisters keeping his sprits up with song point to a greater problem. Sifiso, 26 when we first see him, is dying because his family cannot afford basic treatment that could keep him alive. He is a silent memento mori on the screen, waiting for death during most of We Are Together. The singing at his burial on a hillside is the most heartfelt in the film.
Paul Taylor's direction is typical of the familiar close observation of the documentary that follows a family for an extended time. Taylor began his involvement with the orphanage as a volunteer, and you can sense his emotional attachment to the children as they speak to him in the film's tender close-ups.
Distilled down to 86 minutes - Taylor and Slindile Moya share writing credits - We Are Together is still not as rich as its human and musical story. It often seems too compressed, shortchanging the contextual information, familiar to South Africans but not to others, that would have helped paint a broader picture of the circumstances that put the children in an orphanage. The documentary would also have been rounded out if more songs had been performed in their entirety.
HBO Documentary Films
The Channel Four British Documentary Film Foundation
ro*co Films International