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'Angels' looks death in face in South Africa

The documentary tells the story of Marion Cloete (above) and her husband, who opened her orphanage for children living with HIV/AIDS in the village of Boikarabelo about 20 years ago. The documentary tells the story of Marion Cloete (above) and her husband, who opened her orphanage for children living with HIV/AIDS in the village of Boikarabelo about 20 years ago. (PARTICIPANT PRODUCTIONS/CINEMA LIBRE STUDIO)

It's not remotely enviable the life Marion and Con Cloete have built for themselves. But boy is it necessary. The Cloetes were once an upper-class Johannesburg family, until they used their savings about 20 years ago to open a school and orphanage in rural South Africa. The hundreds of children in the care of the Cloetes and their staff are living with HIV/AIDS or are children of parents who are or have succumbed to the disease.

"Angels in the Dust," Louise Hogarth's documentary about Boikarabelo, the village the Cloetes founded, could easily have been a promotional video. It almost begins that way, with Marion recalling a story of orphaned elephants and saying that it's about "how we lose our mothers and how we find ourselves. That's the journey." Indeed. But Marion is not someone content to sling platitudes for a brochure. She's built like a discus thrower. As our president might say, the woman is a warrior of compassion, and there is work to do. For the most part, Hogarth's affecting movie gets out of her way and lets her do it.

She and her staff, which includes her twin daughters, go looking for children to extract from chores and enroll in school. One of them, Maki, happens to be a prostitute. Marion has to angrily contend with a bullheaded mother like Lillian's, who doesn't believe her sensitive and charismatic daughter was raped and refuses to permit the girl to have an AIDS test. Then there are the ailing mother, Margaret, who doesn't want to be taken to the hospital; the myths about how the disease is contracted; and the obstinate health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, whose stance on AIDS notoriously favors using garlic and beetroot over anti-retroviral drugs. Fighting the disease is not a priority for the minister, which is amazing since about 5.5 million South Africans live with HIV/AIDS. (Doctors and politicians all over the world have been pleading with President Thabo Mbeki to sack her, but she still has her job.)

What you notice most about Hogarth's smartly narrowed focus is just how much death is a part of life for these kids. They articulate personal tragedy with a combination of sadness and resolve. If they're not dying, someone they know is or has died already - chances are they've been interred in Avalon, the village's increasingly crowded cemetery. Demise is everywhere, and Marion refuses to sugarcoat that fact. We see her shop for a coffin and help fill it with a body. As "Angels in the Dust" goes on, it becomes one of the most staggeringly straightforward looks at death I've ever seen. The movie's grace note is its subtlety. No one ever says so, but the Cloetes are fighting for life knowing so much of the dying can be stopped.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

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Angels in the Dust

Directed by: Louise Hogarth

At: Kendall Square, Cambridge

Running time: 95 minutes

Unrated

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