Cutting repeatedly between the Moya home and the choir, We Are Together never quite lets viewers feel settled.
Slindile Moya keeps a photo of Beyoncé on her wall. She doesn't mention it, but as the camera pans her corner of the room she shares with six or seven other children, the picture indicates the 12-year-old knows and reveres her pop stars. Slindile also sings. "There is a song I like to sing to remember my mother," she says softly, "It was her favorite song. I try to sing it so that I never forget her in my life."
Both Slindile's parents died of complications from AIDS when she was just nine years old. She now lives with 25 other children, including three sisters and a baby brother, at the Agape House in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. "It's a place, says Slindile, "for children who don't have parents." As revealed in We Are Together: The Children of Agape Choir, airing on HBO 11 August, these kids comprise only the minutest fraction of the 1.2 million orphaned by AIDS in South Africa alone. They are also among the most fortunate, having come under the care of Agape founder, "Grandma" Zodwa Mqadi. Premised on the notion of "God's unconditional love," the home provides its residents with food and shelter, companionship and education.
Agape also grants its residents a forum for singing. "We sing every day when we get back from school," Slindile says, the camera panning a small room full of young faces turned toward their singing teacher, Thembelani. Earnest and dedicated, he brings in a woman from England to teach the children to sing "Oh Happy Day" and other Western audience pleasers, with a plan to bring the choir to England. As much as the film emphasizes the local culture of singing (Slindile's brother says singing is "something we grew up with," at home, school, and church), it makes clear that singing now serves other functions. "The number of orphans is a big problem," Zodwa says. And so, she notes, the children now "sing to make money."
This idea takes on multiple valences in We Are Together (which does not address government, NGO, corporate, or other efforts to deal with AIDS in South Africa or the world more broadly, though the effects of their failures pervade every frame). On its most obvious, feel-good level in the film, singing provides the children with focus and structure. The South African pop singer Zwai Bala describes his own experience when he comes to record a CD with the Agape choir. Singing is "a healing thing," he says. "Not everyone has music or stereos in their homes," but they find in themselves and each other sources of resilience, creativity, and understanding. "We can't all speak at once," Zwai declares, "But we can all sing at once."
The documentary offers long sequences of the children singing "at once," their faces intent, their voices powerful and lovely. These scenes are strangely transporting, but also potentially discomfiting. Much as Slindile visibly loves to sing with her sister Swa, and much as the seven-year-old Mbali provides the choir with an enchantingly brilliant solo talent, the movie feels alternately reverent, celebratory, and exploitative. Each of these frames is appropriate and appropriately discomfiting, as the film means to promote Agape's product and move viewers to action (if only to buy CDs or DVDs). But unlike most other films with such purpose in mind, it offers not only a close look at the inspirational music-making, but also at the ongoing tragedy of the Moya family.
If Slindile provides the film with intermittent narration, her view is not the film's only one. It cuts between the orphanage and her family home, where her older siblings still live, some caring for children of their own, and one brother, Sifiso, weak, emaciated, and soon bed-ridden. Shots of the tiny Moya home tend to showcase its chipped pale blue walls and the small curtained window to Sifiso's room. At first, he's able to sit outside, at times providing blurred, inevitably somber background for his sisters' interviews.
"He won't get better sitting at home," Slindile say in one such image, hopeful that a trip to the local clinic will help. But Sifiso's trek-by-truck, with siblings riding along in the bumpy back, yields only an expected but devastating diagnosis, that he is HIV-positive. The under-equipped clinic sends him home with packets of pills to be administered by his sisters, including Nonkululeko (the only family member with a job, and not making nearly enough money) and 22-year-old Philisiwe, who has her own toddler underfoot. ("My wish in life," she tells the camera, "is that I can find a job and support my sisters and brothers," even as her community's pervasive poverty makes this seem unlikely.)
After Sifiso's return from the clinic, the camera fixes briefly on a long shot of the house, almost invisible amid early morning fog. From here it cuts to a recording studio, where the children of Agape are working on their CD. With Zwai on piano and an engineer pushing levers in the booth, the scene looks much like other scenes you've seen in other similar movies, especially when little Mbali stands before the mic to solo. But the film follows the cliché with a bit that reminds you what's at stake. The group takes a break, as Thembelani observes that Mbali is "so young." As she turns cartwheels and runs around the studio in the background, he explains that when she's tired or confused, they have to pause. She's a child, dealing with tragedy and serving a commercial purpose.
This problem is made acutely visible when an interviewer asks Mbali why she's at Agape. She murmurs, "Because my mother doesn't fetch us anymore." Why is that, her off-screen questioner persists. "I don't know," she says at last, looking perplexed and weary. The scene re-opens the fundamental question of the film: when does documentary end and exploitation begin? How to reconcile the important awareness- and funds-raising aspects of the project with its probing into young subjects' lives?
Cutting repeatedly between the Moya home and the choir, We Are Together keeps sight of this tension, never quite letting viewers feel settled, whether as charmed observers of angelic African children or consumers of someone else's overwhelming poverty and illness. The kids, for their part, never seem to forget where they are. When, near film's end, 10 of them arrive in wintry Manhattan to perform with Alicia Keys and Paul Simon at Keep a Child Alive's annual Black Ball, they spend a few minutes outside, playing with each other. After they make a globe out of snow, they point to the spot in it where they imagine home: "Africa," one says, "is there: everyone is dying."