Eye For Film >> Movies >> We Are Together (2006) Film Review
We Are Together
Reviewed by: Chris
What do you do/feel/say when a sweet child recounts her heart-breaking personal circumstances..?
Aged 12, Slindile Moya explains in a matter-of-fact way that she is an orphan. One brother is dying. Her other brother and sisters live with her in a crowded orphanage. Jennifer Lopez posters adorn the wall.
Before you can go, "ahhhh..." and reach for the hankies, she finishes her tale by looking up at you with the most heart-warming, charismatic smile imaginable. An infectious smile. A smile that comes from deep elation. It spreads like a glow inside me as I watch her in awe. A love of life that most of us, in our wealthier Western circumstances, merely dream of. An inspiration. A childish mischievousness. And a delight in something more solid in our ever-changing world. I think, here is a child who has practically nothing, and she's making me feel good about life.
We Are Together is a film is about strong inner emotion and using it almost like rocket fuel to power through misfortune. Filmmaker Paul Taylor is impelled to go to Africa - not to make a movie, but, at least initially, as a volunteer in the orphanage. He is just following his feelings. The same is true of these children, who don't learn to sing for fame and fortune, but because they feel like it. They learn for the joy of singing.
A young girl raises her voice to intone words her mother taught her. It fills her heart with beauty and her subsequent account with memories. Is it the film or is it her? I can't recount my childhood memories like that.
African pop star Zwai puts the singing into a context of large families without musical entertainment: "Singing is the one thing that everyone can do at once. We can't all speak at once, but we can all sing at once." It's an African thing, apparently.
All children at Agape home sing. Every day after school. Speaking on camera or to the children there, Slindile explains that Agape is their orphanage. But to other kids, she takes pride in saying it is "a place for children who sing". It makes you wonder for a minute - their dedicated vocal coach somehow gives them more than a maths teacher could.
Paul Taylor returned from his vocational work at the end of his break from film school. He goes back to Africa after finishing his studies, spending three years filming with people he is already close to (which probably helps give the film its feeling of relaxed, family intimacy). He surrounds himself with some of the best people in the business - including veteran editor Masahiro Hirakubo (The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary, Trainspotting), Paul Simon and Alicia Keys (they happen to be around as it maybe resonates with what they are doing). For a first time film, We Are Together is a powerful testament and worthy winner of the many awards heaped on it. And all on a budget of £100,000.
Fairly early on, we become aware that many children's parents have died from AIDS. "Does it ever cross your mind," the interviewer asks, "that your [older] brother might have AIDS?" Slindile answers: "Yeah, I sometimes think of that, because it is usually the cause when someone is ill." (Side note: how many films about AIDS can you think of that are fun? Let alone one of the best feelgood films you'll see this year?) Eventually the older brother goes into the hospice. He is diagnosed as HIV-positive, given some vitamin B, and discharged. Siblings visit regularly. In one of the best scenes, the dying man raises himself from his bed long enough to correct them on small points of their songs. At his funeral they sing '"sleep, our conqueror, and rest".
Usually we say to poor people: learn some academic subjects, get a job, by implication, use the money you earn to get happiness. With the Agape kids it works differently. They are already pretty happy. They'd like the orphanage to be bigger to look after more children. A Jesus-warbling charity-worker from England suggests a music CD and a trip to England. She teaches them to sing, '"Oh happy day, when Jesus washed our sins away". The trip to England falls through, but the South African pop singer helps the kids get the CD finished. And people take notice.
But more misadventures await the children before they can fulfil their dream. Before song conquers all, we might be tempted to ask who is benefiting from all this? (At least the cautious cynic in me does.) But the only charities the film is openly connected with are one represented by Alicia Keys, called Keep a Child Alive, and the one that helped Taylor volunteer in the first place. Profits from the film go to help the children. EsKom (the South African electricity company) sponsorship is recognised at the front gate. None of them seem to have an agenda beyond that.
The only fly in the ointment, for me, was the woman who tried to get Jesus into the mix. This is not to deny the wonderful work done by Christian charities. Catholic organisations alone mercifully provide around 25 per cent of the care AIDS victims receive worldwide. Yet it is maybe tempting to give credit to such agencies even though they also contribute to the problem. In 2003, President Bush declared he would spend $15 billion on his emergency plan for Aids relief, but only if abstinence was emphasised over condoms. Religious fundamentalists, some financially supported by the US government, attack condom use. But the work of more sensible, ordinary Christians is used to justify the excesses of Catholicism and Fundamentalism in the name of Jesus.
In Slindile's large family, only the oldest sister has a job. She worries about earning enough for food for several mouths. Both parents are dead.
Agape (translated quite well by Grandma Zodwa as "unlimited love") home succeeds by dint of the human spirit of its children. Not Jesus. Not by an external spiritual saviour. Their capacity to deal with terrible situations with great dignity is instructive.
Says Taylor: "The whole experience taught me so much. When I returned to the UK just after Sifiso had passed away, my own father died a few months later. I really feel like I was able to deal with that situation much better, and found so much more strength because of what I had taken from the experience with the Moya family. They don't know it, and would probably be embarrassed if I told them, but they gave me so much strength and really helped me through that period and I think that's powerful - that ability: the ability to give other people strength. I hope the film might allow the Moya family and the children of Agape to work in that way for other people too."Reviewed on: 12 Aug 2007
If you like this, try:We'll Never Meet Childhood Again