We Are Together

Tomorrow will be a momentous day here in London, where thousands of people will gather to celebrate the birthday of Nelson Mandela. I consider it an honour and a privilege to have been invited to take part in such an event. For me, it will be an opportunity not only to acknowledge the life of this most extraordinary man, but also to continue the commitment to following his legacy. As well as standing for human rights and justice, Mandela represents the triumph of hope over despair. At this point in history it seems we all need that kind of inspiration to encourage us not to give in, or give up, when faced with the issues of this mad and complex world. Human beings can be incredibly resourceful, against all the odds, and when we tap into that kind of personal power, extraordinary things can happen. Take, for example Paul Taylor, a young film maker who went to South Africa as a volunteer a few years ago. He decided to make a film about the people he worked with at the Agape Children’s home. The film is called WE ARE TOGETHER , and has won many awards since it’s release. It is a beautiful and moving story centred around a family who have been devastatingly affected by the HIV AIDS pandemic. I will be singing with The Agape Children’s Choir tomorrow. www.wearetogether.org

We Are Together: The story of the Agape orphanage in South Africa

A documentary that follows three years in the life of a choir of South African children orphaned by Aids has met critical acclaim and raised £250,000 for the home set up to house them. More surprisingly still, the film was shot by a student who picked up the craft of film-making as he went along. By Sally Williams. It is astonishing, Paul Taylor admits, that his debut documentary We Are Together, made when he was still a student, is now playing to a critical wave of acclaim on the festival circuit. The film, about a South African orphanage, has raised £250,000 to help the orphans, but being a do-gooder is not what the 26-year-old director had in mind at all. ‘I hope I don’t come across as too worthy,’ Taylor says when we meet. Is that a bad thing? I ask. ‘Yes!’ he replies, horrified. ‘I don’t want the film to be seen like that. A lot of stuff we see about Africa and the developing world is very depressing, and although this story is sad in places, it’s enjoyable in places, too.’ There is no disguising the fact that We Are Together is about children orphaned by Aids, but for all its shots of graves and children in tears it is also quite possibly the least-worthy worthy film you can expect to see. It is almost closer in spirit to a musical – there is lots of singing – than the harrowing rigours of many documentaries. We Are Together charts three turbulent years in the life of Agape, an orphanage founded by a social worker, ‘Gogo’ Zodwa Mqadi, in KwaZulu-Natal. Gogo is a big woman with a big personality. She has a huge, throaty laugh, wears a fur hat even in summer and explodes with charm. ‘Agape is a Greek word meaning unconditional love,’ she beams. ‘At Agape we have unconditional love.’ The film opens and closes with our heroine Slindile Moya, 12, sensitive, stoical, and with a shy grin. Slindile finds it hard to express her feelings, but it’s all there, written on her face. ‘It’s a place for beautiful children!’ she says, when asked what Agape is. She pauses and her face contorts as she approaches the truth, ‘OK, it’s a place for children where…,’ she sighs, ‘It’s a place for children who don’t have parents.’ For the 82 minutes in between, we see a trip to the UK cancelled, a devastating fire, a death, hopes crushed, and yet still the children laugh. Agape children are forever laughing. There is lots of dancing, too, with children dressed in beanies doing impromptu routines to the radio which pours out their favourite Kwaito, a South African version of house music. We Are Together is actually about being apart. While Slindile lives at Agape with three sisters and a younger brother, her older brother and three older sisters live in the family home half-an-hour or so away. After their parents died in 2000, the children were divided. ‘We had to take the younger ones to Agape,’ Philisiwe, an older sister, explains. ‘We couldn’t afford to take them to school or buy them food.’ But that doesn’t stop them from being a family. Particularly now their brother, Sifiso, is sick with Aids and spends all day in bed. He is 26, but every bit of him is fading. His sister carried him piggy-back down the hill to their home from the hospice. She will later carry him back up in a mortician’s tray. It could be sentimental, but the film negotiates changing mood with amazing adroitness. (It may be Paul Taylor’s first film, but the editor, Masahiro Hirakubo, is a skilled veteran with a cv that includes Trainspotting and The Beach.) One minute Slindile is wistful, looking at her mother’s grave. ‘I didn’t believe I’d never see Mum again.’ The next, she is being given a headlock hug by Sbongile – a helper at Agape who is oversized and fabulous – locked against her enormous chest as she goes bouncing and chortling around the kitchen. But the star role in We Are Together is not a person, but song. That singing is a big feature of the children’s life is not unusual. Zwai Bala, a pop star who helped the children record a fund-raising CD, says, ‘We South Africans sing before we sleep, sing before we eat; we sing when we are happy, we sing when we are celebrating, we sing when we are sad.’ The youngsters work hard at their singing, practising before each meal (even breakfast), plus a daily session after school with Thembelani, a singing tutor, organised by Gogo. But what makes the Agape choir exceptional is the voices of the Moya family. Slindile’s has extra lustiness, deep like a soul singer; her sister, Swaphiwe, is pure soprano. Together they sing in exquisite harmonies. Song does more than act as a soundtrack. It ends up driving the film, taking the children on a journey they never thought possible. Katie Bradford, the editorial director of the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation, says, ‘It’s a very empowering film. You’re left with the feeling that lots can be done and lots has been achieved and actually you’ve engaged in something quite inspirational.’ This accounts for the fact that audiences leave We Are Together red-eyed but uplifted, and also why the film has won so many awards (even beating off big-budget competition from Ratatouille and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, at the Edinburgh International Festival). I meet Paul Taylor in a café in London. In baggy jeans and white polo shirt, he still looks like a student (and in fact still lives with his mum). But since the success of his film, he has set up a production company, Rise Films, in London, with Teddy Leifer (the producer on We Are Together) and so, finally, will be leaving home, and mum, in Birmingham. Making the film has clearly changed his life, and not just in terms of his career. ‘They’re remarkable kids because whatever situation they’re in, however difficult it is, they always see the positive. They have enough reasons in their life to be really down, but they never were. It made a big impact on me.’ He says that after he returned to the UK after filming Sifiso’s death, his own father died from cancer. ‘I was able to deal with that situation a lot better because of what I’d taken from the Moya family. If I hadn’t met them I probably would have felt sorry for myself and felt it was unfair, but I skipped those parts of the process.’ The other change, he says, is that he is now a man with a mission. In many ways Taylor has done the impossible: brought the terrible truth of Aids into cinemas. And yet he is first to admit that before he chanced upon the orphanage, he couldn’t have been less interested. ‘I was aware that it [Aids] was a big problem, but I didn’t really pay much attention to it.’ There is not much in Taylor’s past that points to the typical profile of a campaigning documentary film maker. His father worked for British Gas, his mother sold craft supplies. At Stratford-upon-Avon College, where he did a B-tech in media ?production and an A-level in film studies, he was more interested in music than social issues. When he did discover a love of film, at Bournemouth University, where he studied television production, it was fiction films. But then, in the summer of 2003, the end of his first year, he wanted to go travelling. ‘I hadn’t done a gap year and my grandmother had passed way and left me a couple of thousand pounds and I knew I wanted to spend three months in one place and do something a little bit different, so I came across this volunteer project on the internet.’ Agape. ‘It was really random.’ Agape is half-an-hour inland from Durban, in a Zulu area called Valley of a Thousand Hills. ‘It’s almost like the land has been crumpled up,’ Taylor enthuses. ‘You see these different hills with all these villages and communities around. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.’ You suddenly understand what lies behind those scenic shots of sunsets and scrub in the film. But this is the only sense of context given in We Are Together. Taylor’s strategy was to make it observational. Events unfold (shaky at first, Taylor admits, ‘you can see it improve as I’m learning’). ‘There was a lot of talk of trying to introduce more of the wider situation into the film,’ he explains, ‘but I fought that, because we wanted it to be about one story, one f
amily.’ Agape is in fact on the edge of the white neighbourhood of Waterfall, an affluent village with a shopping centre and a Spar. ‘Agape had problems in the early days with local residents not wanting it there,’ Taylor says. Gogo set it up in the late 1990s. ‘A lot of people she was dealing with were HIV-positive and their main concern was what would happen to their children when they passed away. So she said, "I’ll look after them." She found a piece of land with some shipping containers, with no windows or anything and had 60 kids in there on mattresses. It was a real struggle. Then someone donated the house and the plot of land and they moved into the house, kept some of the shipping containers and put windows and doors in them – that’s the boys’ dorm in the film.’ Agape offers consolation for dying parents. There’s a shot in the film of Flower, aged seven, who is everyone’s favourite. ‘Why do you live at Agape?’ a voice asks. ‘Because my mother doesn’t fetch me any more,’ she says. ‘Why doesn’t she pick you up any more?’ The life in Flower’s face drops away. ‘I don’t know.’ Taylor explains, ‘Her mother would have known she was ill and would have asked Gogo if Flower could live there in the week, and then she would take her home at weekends. She was trying to get her to make that transition.’ Taylor says he was beguiled when he arrived at Agape. ‘They’re so endearing; so loveable! I never imagined I would have so much fun, just with the kids. A lot of stuff you see here [of Aids orphans] is quite depressing. They’re dehumanised in photos, not named, and you don’t have a chance to connect or relate and that is what we wanted to do in the film.’ Not that Taylor initially thought of making a film. ‘It would be good to say it was all pre-planned, but it was October, I was back at university and I really wanted a reason to go back and spend more time with the kids. I just wanted to do more to help them.’ So, scraping together £6,000 from family, credit cards and Theatrecares, an Aids charity, Taylor went back to Agape with Teddy Leifer the following summer. (He had by then become more technically skilled after spending four months at Ryerson University, Toronto, as part of his course, where he had studied the work of observational documentary film makers such as the Maysles brothers, DA Pennebaker and Fred Wiseman.) ‘We decided to follow seven children for the first couple of weeks. We weren’t sure whose story was going to become important, and very quickly it became clear it should be Slindile.’ Slindile and her sisters and brother return to their family home most weekends, and their house becomes a motif in the film, with the camera returning again and again to the Titian blue of its exterior and the ghosts of parents flickering in the shadow of a tree they planted years before. The parents were extraordinarily gifted singers. ‘We used to sit down around the fire with our mum and just sing,’ Sifiso remembers in the film. He was exposed to such perfect harmony as a child that he corrects his sisters’ singing, even on his deathbed. Sifiso’s HIV, Taylor says, was most likely sexually transmitted. Not that it’s ever discussed. ‘There is still massive stigma against the disease so the family is really coy and uncomfortable talking about it,’ Taylor explains. His plan was to film the children that summer, and then fly back with them to England for their fundraising singing trip, organised by a volunteer from Exeter University. But of course it didn’t work out like that. ‘By the time we started university in September, Sifiso had died and the trip was cancelled and we didn’t really know what was going to happen.’ No one could have predicted what did in fact happen. Four months later, the main house at the orphanage burnt down (a faulty plug) and the future looked grim, with the children squashed into the shipping containers. ‘We didn’t know what the ending was, or whether we had an ending, but with that sort of film you kind of go with it. I think we were always hoping something would happen if we waited long enough.’ What happened was the stuff of dreams. After the trip to the UK was cancelled, the children might have thought it was all over, but Gogo instigated Plan B: ‘To finish these CDs and hope somebody somewhere will hear them.’ Somebody did hear the children singing: Alicia Keyes, the pop star, and co-founder of Keep a Child Alive, the charity that provides anti-retroviral drugs for people with HIV/Aids. In the summer of 2005, the charity contacted Agape, inviting the children to perform in a fund raising concert in New York with Paul Simon and Alicia Keyes. In the winter of that year, Slindile, Swa and the Agape choir not only got their trip abroad – ‘the fact that it was New York, not England, was probably even more exciting,’ says Taylor – but their singing saved their future. The concert raised £60,000. Taylor had a happy ending. ‘We’ve been very lucky,’ he admits. Yes, and no, says Bradford. ‘What they’ve done [Paul Taylor and Teddy Leifer] is incredibly difficult,’ she points out. ‘First, to spot the story, then to be proactive enough to start filming and to keep filming even though you have no money and you’re doing it all yourself – it’s blood, sweat and tears, that film, it really is.’ ‘The film has helped so much,’ says Nonku, 27, Slindile’s older sister. Taylor, who still talks to the family every week, has set up an educational fund and is aiming to raise £500,000 from the film to help orphans, including the children of Agape, get a good education. To date he has raised £100,000 so that Nonku could give up her job as a domestic worker and return to school. ‘Money comes to us every month so that we can buy some food and clothes.’ Slindile is now 16 and wants to be a nurse. This is no longer an impossible dream, because Taylor and Leifer have organised for her and all the children at Agape to go to a better school, and funded extra tuition. The film has also raised £150,000 to help Agape rebuild after the fire. The orphanage is now expanded and less dormitory-style, with a big hall, and satellite cottages with six child?ren per cottage looked after by a house mother. Flower is still at Agape, and sings a duet on the latest fundraising CD, recorded with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Interestingly, what gave the film its intimacy – the close relationship between Taylor and the children – was almost threatened by the process. Taylor recalls, ‘There was a point when I’d been filming them for so long, I wanted it to finish so I could get to back to my relationship with them, instead of having a relationship through a lens.’