One of the opening scenes in Angels in the Dust shows waking children, some two to a bed, others with cats curled up beside them, greeting what looks like a chilly day in South Africa. They are some of the 550 children cared for at Boikarabelo, a children’s sanctuary about an hour north of Johannesburg. Half live here full-time; the other half come from surrounding villages for school.
Soon the camera embraces Marion Cloete, the feisty silver-haired woman who runs this sanctuary with her husband, Con, and two daughters. The family gave up their privileged life in Johannesburg 19 years ago (Marion misses water-skiing, Con misses having his own toilet) and used their savings to start Boikarabelo. Their motto is that no one who asks for help is turned away.
It’s a tall order in a country with such high rates of poverty, disease, and HIV/AIDS infections, but the Cloetes and their staff manage with determination, humor, and lots of crying. They feed, clothe, educate, dispense anti-retroviral drugs, buy coffins to bury villagers who have died of AIDS, and beg mothers to let their children come to school. Led by Marion, a trained therapist, they also try to help kids come to terms with what they’ve suffered and lost.
Louise Hogarth, the film’s writer-director, found Boikarabelo in the course of researching virgin rape, the terrible myth that sex with a child will cure a person of HIV/AIDS. Many of the orphanage’s children are victims of that myth, prostituted by their family members for money or raped by strangers. In one scene, Marion sits with Lillian, an irrepressible spirit who appears throughout the film, while Lillian tells her of being raped “when I was young” (she is still young). She told her mother, but her mother didn’t believe her. “It was very painful, Marion,” Lillian said—a statement delivered with such devastating calm that it took my breath away.
Death, in all its forms, is in stark relief throughout the 90-minute film, but so is life. The children are cared for not just by a small group of compassionate adults, but by each other. They giggle, sing welcoming songs to one another, and hold hands as they walk down the road. “We have to look after each other,” Marion tells kids who are gathered for a therapy session. Forced to accept death—in unacceptable ways and at unacceptable levels—this community of people have learned how to live. That is what makes this film an unexpectedly hopeful gift.
Molly Marsh is an associate editor of Sojourners.