At the Vancouver South African Film Festival, Angels in Exile looks at life on the streets

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      When Billy Raftery began filming the lives of children living on the streets of Durban, South Africa, there was no guarantee his documentary would have a happy end.

      The kids were living in a rough environment, lacked adult care, and most struggled with various degrees of drug addiction. And so it was always possible his protagonists could grow up into pretty unlikable characters, Raftery concedes on the phone from New York.

      “We had no idea,” he tells the Straight. “Focusing on two kids, I hoped it would humanize them and put a face to this for viewers who may not have been very familiar with this worldwide crisis of homeless youth.…But I had no idea where the stories were going to go.”

      The gamble paid off and Raftery’s documentary, Angels in Exile, concludes on an optimistic note. The two children followed the most closely, Zuleika and Ariel, share heartbreaking experiences but also positive milestones.

      Ariel, not even a teenager during his first interview presented in the film, talks openly about his dependence on glue. “It makes you feel warm when you’re in the streets,” he says. “It keeps you company. Makes you forget about your parents, your family, your brothers, your sisters, your house.”

      Later, Zuleika reacts to an unplanned pregnancy. “You used to tell me that I mustn’t come back to the streets because I might get hurt or something bad could happen to me,” she says to an off-screen Raftery. “Now I can see that you were right. If I carry on staying here, I will give birth in the streets.…I don’t want that. I want my baby to be something. Maybe something good, better than me. Get an education. Go to school and finish school. Get his own job. Not just like me. Staying in the streets.”

      The kind of access Raftery gained wasn’t granted by the children overnight. Angels in Exile was filmed over eight years. “We had over 200 hours of footage and whittled it down to about 74 minutes,” Raftery says.

      He is quick to express thanks for help he received from Thuthukani “Sosha” Dlamini, a former homeless youth Raftery describes as “my main guy, like a coproducer”. But there were many nights Raftery spent out on the streets of Durban alone with the film’s subjects, he notes.

      The result is candid footage and an intimate portrait of street life where it seldom feels like the young people on-screen were conscious of the filmmaker following them.

      “They embraced it,” Raftery says of the kids’ attitudes toward the cameras. “They could comprehend, without any schooling or education at all, that this film might not be able to help them immediately, but could effectively help their situation by showing their lives and what the police and the government do to them.”

      Angels in Exile screens in association with the Vancouver South African Film Festival at SFU Woodward’s at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday (April 12). The film will be followed by a Q&A with director Billy Raftery. All VSAFF proceeds support Education Without Borders.

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      Ian Mass

      Apr 8, 2015 at 5:29pm

      The South Africa government studied Canada’s reservation system before establishing their “township” apartheid system. This film shows the downstream outcome for youth growing up in South African.
      Melanie Mark, a longtime advocate working with Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, BC representative for children and youth, brings a First Nations lens to this British Columbian/South African connection. She joins Billy Raftery for a post movie discussion.

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