I met Louise Hogarth in Los Angeles a little over a year ago at her Dream Out Loud production offices in West Hollywood. She had a documentary project she had been working on and had run out of resources to continue shooting, editing and finishing the film. Like a lot of documentary directors, she had forged ahead anyway due to the urgency of telling the story she'd discovered in a small village in South Africa, and the extraordinary people there. She had been in talks with Participant Productions for about a year, and was desperate for some kind of decision on whether or not they would come on board to help produce Angels in the Dust. A few weeks after we met to discuss strategies for finding an executive producer and ways to raise money to continue the project, Participant took the project in and Hogarth got busy.
The film had its premiere at Full Frame this past spring and Louise was one of a handful of filmmakers to participate in a special focus on "Africa Stories," part of the festival's program this year. It won the Emerging Pictures/Full Frame Audience Award and went on to garner kudos everywhere else it showed, including the Seattle Film Festival where it won a Special Jury Prize for Best Documentary. When the film was selected by the International Documentary Association (IDA) for its Docuweek, Participant decided to pass on the IDA's offer to showcase the film and qualify Angels for the Oscar shortlist for a nomination for best feature doc on its own. Hogarth is currently accompanying the film on its national theatrical roll-out tour. Quite an amazing journey for this long-time filmmaker.
Her journey to Botshabelo, the orphanage in South Africa where she found her story, was equally as intense. The HIV/AIDS virus is decimating whole swaths of the population of South Africa (among many other places), and leaving millions of orphans behind. Marion Cloete is a university-trained therapist, who with her husband, Con, and their adult twin daughters left a comfortable upper middle-class existence in the suburbs of Johannesburg behind to build a small village and school that provides shelter, food, education and, most importantly, love and healing, to well over 500 local children. Shot in verite style that captures the vibrancy and color of the landscape, the film illustrates the horror and tragedy these children have had to endure--abandonment, rape, prostitution, orphanhood and death. But it also shows a re-acquaintance of joy and hope and love these children experience as they are counseled, healed, educated and fiercely supported by this extraordinary woman. Artfully shot on HD by cinematographer May Rigler and edited with grace and a lovely rhythm by editor, Melinda Epler, the film is accompanied by an equally beautiful, and haunting, original score by South African singer/songwriter Simphiwe Dana.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called HIV/AIDS "the new Apartheid." By the year 2010, 100 million people in sub-Saharan Africa will be infected with the virus and 26 million children will be orphaned. Right now, six million adults and children in South Africa are infected (this number is increasing daily), but the national government has done nothing to address this exploding pandemic.
Angels in the Dust is the story of one woman, with very few resources but a lot of ferocity and spirit, who just decided to take things into her own hands and do whatever she could to make a difference in a few children's lives.
Still in Motion (SIM): You’ve been making films a long time, this film being your first major production with a studio. Has this experience jettisoned you to another level in your career? Not that the struggling is over, it’s never over for filmmakers, but has the playing field for you as a director changed?
Louise Hogarth (LH): Too early to tell. I hope so.
SIM: What, psychologically, has changed for you as an artist? Are you more confident? Has your outlook on what you want your career to look like changed?
LH: You know, I think I realized that my instincts are really good.
SIM: You mean you trust them more now?
LH: Yes. Even though I should have trusted them more before, in light of what I’ve accomplished and the projects I’ve done. The Gift played in over 180 film festivals (and it’s still being requested on the festival circuit four years later) and The Panama Deception won an Academy Award. But making this film, I really honed my craft and trusted my instincts like I never have before. And, of course, I learned a tremendous amount.
SIM: Where in the process did you know that you were going to have to rely on your instincts the most, that that might be the only thing that was going to push you to the next stage of production?
LH: It was during the editing process. Things kind of broke down and we were floundering and I had to take the reins and make decisions so we could move forward.
SIM: Was this before, or after, Participant came on board?
LH: After. All the footage had been shot. It was difficult and I think it was, mostly, the time pressure we were under. Participant came on in August of 2006; I left for Africa in late August and returned in September and started digitizing and editing in September. We were through by the end of December. There were 136 hours of footage, none of which had been edited until then, due to lack of resources and money. It was really a stressful situation.
SIM: Why such a rushed schedule?
LH: We were trying to get into the ’07 Sundance festival.
SIM: Did you think, at any point, that the project would be compromised in service to that deadline?
LH: I don’t know if “compromised” is the right word. It’s wonderful to have the luxury of time to try different options in the post work, but on the other hand, I don’t mind that it was expedited quickly—the crisis in Africa is so huge and people need help so desperately.
SIM: When I met you, I think that was the worst part of it for you: that you had such a sense of urgency, that there really wasn’t time to waste, exactly for that reason.
LH: Yes, I wanted it out there as quickly as possible to help the school, to be an effective tool—to provide some kind of solution, even in a small way.
SIM: Shooting in Africa, did you ever feel intimidated at all by the sheer scope of what you were doing—were logistics tricky, was it difficult getting where you needed to go?
LH: No, I never felt intimidated. I experienced frustration when the project stalled. At one point, Marion was threatened by one of her Christian funding entities when they found out that I was the filmmaker that made The Gift. And they told her that if she continued working with me, they would pull her funding. She was really upset. She wanted to know why I hadn’t told her about the film, how controversial it was, what the subject matter dealt with, etc. So I gave her the film to watch and she loved it. Marion actually told me she was going to use what she learned in The Gift and apply it to her day-to-day counseling sessions at the orphanage. And she did. Once she saw it, she told the funding people that we were going forward with the project with me at the helm. She ended up losing that money because of her affiliation with me.
And then there were times that they just got tired of having the camera there. She’s a really strong personality and she just got fed up sometimes. But, then we’d find a way to continue. And it can be dangerous to film there, of course—it’s Africa.
SIM: What’s dangerous about it?
LH: When you’re there filming with a crew, there are constant threats of hijacking, robbery, rape, murder. We lived behind three locked gates. However, May Rigler and I did many shoots on our own, both daytime and nighttime, driving around in an old beat-up car to shoot in various locations--some pretty threatening. We stayed alert and paid extra attention. Half the time, we'd have a sound guy with us, but the rest of the time we were on our own. But, oddly, I never personally felt I was in danger.
SIM: What is the biggest difference, do you think, trying to do a project like yours on that continent versus doing one here? The Gift was equally as threatening to many people in some ways and, to a large extent, that’s why it was shunned or ignored.
LH: Silent opposition.
SIM: Were there experiences when you had a sense of déjà vu about that—that even though you were on a different continent, in a different world, that struggle was a familiar one?
LH: The biggest similarity was being turned down for funding because of the subject matter. I couldn’t get any funding in South Africa because Marion is white. And I couldn’t get any funding in America or Europe for The Gift because the HIV/AIDS organizations (largely gay-run) did not want the gay community receiving bad press about that issue. So, the human rights issues were being overlooked in service to some organization’s agenda. In terms of the AIDS issue, I don’t think it’s important what color someone’s skin is or their stance on gay marriage in the middle of this crisis. This disease affects people’s lives, period; their lives are being sacrificed. South Africa didn’t want to fund this project because a white woman and a white man were doing the legwork. These people are saving so many children! AIDS organizations here in America didn’t want to fund The Gift because they didn’t want to see gay people bashed even more than they are. So are we just supposed to let everyone get infected? There are some very similar parallels.
SIM: Have audiences remarked upon that at all—the fact that a white family in South Africa is the “rescuer” of all these black children? Does that resonate at all with people in any negative sense?
LH: No, not really. It does resonate with a few Americans with the perception that all white South Africans are somehow responsible for Apartheid. Black South Africans that I met that live here in America and blacks that live there don’t really see it that way. They never see that at all. They see Marion as an incredibly wonderful woman that sacrificed a lot to help save these children. There are still a few people that have this weird hang-up about Apartheid and I think that people outside of South Africa should realize that it’s not that black and white. We have to get beyond those kinds of restrictions in our thinking. This is all about the human condition—every human being, no matter what color their skin is—black, white, gray, green, purple.
SIM: I think you did a really good job in this film of driving that point home: a shared community, people taking care of one another each according to his or her own ability and need. I think that’s why most people are so moved by the film—it represents an ideal in a very real way.
LH: I think the reason I was so attracted to the story was because I thought that the way that Marion and Con were living and the issues they were dealing with are issues we all deal with in our own way. It seems to me the West is in a period of spiritual crisis right now. We’re all asking ourselves what we’re doing with our lives, what can we do differently. And what about our families? Parents are dying, in the gay community a spouse is dying and yet homosexuals are still not legally entitled to make decisions for their loved ones, there’s divorce going on—how do we deal with it all? People tell me that on a personal level, this film helps them so much. I think it resonates with people on a very personal level, with whatever it is that they’re dealing with in their own lives. I try to make films that give back to the audience—not something that’s just going to guilt them into going out and trying to “save the world”. We’re overwhelmed in our daily lives and I hope the film encourages people, in their own way, to do something, even if it’s talking to a parent or child they haven’t been speaking with for some reason.
SIM: Realizing how much impact this kind of film can have, do you hope to have that same kind of impact with the narrative films you’ll do? Try to explain why you’re shifting into narrative. Because knowing you like I do, I’m sure you’ll always make movies that want to make a difference—there will be depth and substance. How do you see that as being more effective, more beneficial for your career?
LH: Well, it’s not so much in terms of my career, although that’s one way of looking at it. It’s really more for my personal development as a filmmaker. I want to stretch myself to the next level; I want the next challenge. I’ve done several documentaries that I’m proud of, I’m working on a documentary now, and I think I’ll always be an activist filmmaker. The scripts I’m writing deal with issues in South Africa from a whole different point of view and I will always try to make films that, in some way, enlighten people. I just think you can reach a bigger audience with feature films.
SIM: Who is your audience? In your heart of hearts, is there someone out there that you, particularly, want to reach?
LH: Funders—people with money! (laughs) People who would like to help me get my next project off the ground.
SIM: We'd all like to find those people. Going back to Angels—I’m assuming the children have seen the film. Were you there when they watched it?
LH: Yes, they have seen it, and no, I wasn’t there. But, I was just there a month ago and they got to tell me how thrilled and excited they were.
SIM: In certain instances, on camera, you got these children to tell their horrible stories. Did you have a little bit of trepidation at all in filming that? How was that arranged between you and Marion and Lillian, for example, or any of the other young girls that were willing to sit in front of the camera and publicly share their ordeal?
LH: I didn’t worry about exploiting the children or making them feel badly because Marion was there and Marion was our guide. And Marion is a fierce mother. She would not allow any questions asked of them that she knew they couldn’t handle. And that’s why I was comfortable. Her whole existence is based on protecting them.
SIM: Con, to me, too, seemed to be a fierce protector. Almost a fierce mother to the fierce mother, in a way, even though he was so quiet and stayed in the background. While Marion is taking care of everyone else, he seemed like the type of man that just went about the business of taking care of her, enabling her to have that kind of tireless energy to keep going day after day like she does. Filmic possibilities aside, what drew you to these people?
LH: Well, I think the reason they let me film them is that one, the children wanted to tell their stories and two, on a personal level, Con and I and Marion all vibrate on the same level. We believe in some really wacky theories that a lot of other people don’t believe in. And immediately after meeting them, we started talking about all this stuff. I don’t really want to go into it, but read rense.com . We had similar outlooks and beliefs that most people think are crazy.
SIM: That’s interesting. I actually hear that a lot. More times than not, a documentary filmmaker will tell me that they feel like their story found them and not the other way around—found them for a very particular reason, and it is very spiritual and intuitive. So it all depends on what you believe about how all that happens—who’s orchestrating what and when and with whom—the mysterious aspect of our individual journeys.
LH: There were many angels accompanying us on this particular journey—all the way through. Every time it fell apart, it came back, over and over and over again, despite every obstacle and all the barricades put in our path. We jumped over them, somehow, and continued on. This project didn’t come to me by accident. I had no intention of filming; I was screening The Gift in Cape Town. But I flew to Johannesburg and drove out to the orphanage at the behest of a friend, a friend I had known for many years that I trusted completely. I met the Cloetes and we were on our way.
And they really loved The Gift. Marion says that she, too, always says things that people don’t want to hear—she understands about that. They’re mavericks, too.
SIM: I think they’re bringing up these children to be mavericks, as well. These children, who have lost everything there is for a child to lose, will be the leaders of that country some day, the voice of a new generation that will force their government to do what it, so far, has refused to do. As you address so eloquently in your Q&As and in other conversations we’ve had about the film and the issues, this cycle of victim/perpetrator exists universally—no one is immune.
LH: Now, we’re [the United States] involved in it. We’ve been the perpetrator and we will become the victim—we already are. I’m glad you’re bringing that up because that was what initially attracted me quite strongly to Marion and the work she was doing. Because that’s what I tried to accomplish with The Gift. The victim becomes the perpetrator who passes on the virus and in turn becomes the victim once more and the cycle continues on. In South Africa, you get raped and then you rape. Marion had such understanding for the rapist. The rapists were embraced there; they weren’t judged. She really lives what Christ taught. I’m a spiritual person and it comes down to the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That’s the whole basis for my DO Ubuntu bracelet campaign.
SIM: I’ve been wearing mine ever since you gave them to me—they’re my Power Girl bracelets; they’re indestructible.
So you’re in the Oscar qualifying race again after almost 15 years—what’s that like now that you’re the director and it’s truly “your” film?
LH: I’m thrilled. I think the catalyst for trying to get qualified was being picked by the IDA for Docuweek, one of twelve showcased films out of close to 200. I was in Africa when I heard. I think Participant then realized that this film had more potential than what was originally thought. We were turned down by a lot of festivals.
SIM: Why is that do you think?
LH: Well, I think that some film festivals maybe felt like they could have only one Africa film. War/Dance (another IDA select that did participate in Docuweek) was programmed already--that's Africa in Uganda. Or they had another film that took place in the Sudan. But in each festival in which we were programmed, we won an award. And then we were selected by the IDA. So Participant decided to roll the film out to be eligible for a nomination.
SIM: Talk about working with Participant. They’ve done some very high-profile films and were one of the first major companies to imbue social activism, or a social activist arm, into the film projects they produce. It’s part and parcel of their marketing and distribution scenario. It seems like the perfect fit for a filmmaker like you.
LH: I think the learning curve was all mine, not theirs. I’m coming from the independent world; I’ve never worked with a big studio before. There are a lot of chiefs, a lot of decision-makers, consultants. I’m used to being the captain of my own ship. Diane Weyermann was very helpful in giving me feedback on telling the children’s stories, bringing them to the fore, focusing on them more and a bit less on Marion. Having a machine like Participant behind you is invaluable in getting an issue like this out into the world. I’m now working with the social action division with Bonnie Abaunza who used to be at Amnesty International and has recently come on board. The social action department has exponentially increased—from one person to four. They’ve been fantastic—throwing parties, working Bonnie's connections. She really believes in the film.
SIM: Where are you playing in Los Angeles?
LH: At Laemmle's Music Hall. We're opening September 28. We had a fantastic premiere at the Pacific Design Center sponsored by the City of West Hollywood. All the mayors around the United States are adopting causes. And West Hollywood has adopted the Botshabelo orphanage.
SIM: How are you juggling all of this and starting a new film project?
LH: I started shooting about four weeks ago and am doing the roll-out for this film. And I’m also managing the “DO” bracelet campaign to continue to raise money for the orphanage. It’s a lot, but I’ve always worked hard—that’s all I do! I need a rest.
SIM: And the subject of your new doc?
LH: Gays in the military. I’m following an enlisted officer in the military—she’s currently serving. I want to make documentaries about people who are living the event. Like Botshabelo—they’re living it. I want to continue to improve my skills at the same time. This new film is much more verite than anything else I’ve done. And it’s happening now. This young woman has been living “out” in the lesbian world, always has, fully accepted—and suddenly she goes into a time warp where she has to pretend she has no life. Who knows what will happen? This is the great thing with docs: it’s like a sculptor bringing out something from a block of wood—the form emerges organically. And certainly that’s what will happen with this film. I’m sure it will take at least a couple of years to make, to discover that narrative that will emerge with time.
SIM: Will you miss those challenges directing narratives where things are pretty much set story-wise? Will you have a difficult time adapting to what might seem rigid to you, considering the way you’re used to shooting films?
LH: I don’t think I will. I think there are other creative ways to explore, such as the performance you evoke from actors, the way you represent a scene, the way you link your scenes together—there are those real creative challenges in that realm.
SIM: Are you excited to work with actors—people you actually have a semblance of control over? (laughs)
LH: I am—very much so! Listen, the biggest fear I have, honestly, is not fulfilling my potential. I would love to move back and forth between narrative and nonfiction. It really comes down to the power of film and the power of storytelling.
I wanted to show in Angels in the Dust that one person can make a difference. We are all overwhelmed. Marion said to me, “People always say to me, ‘Marion, how can you keep up? What are you going to do—there are millions of children who need help.’ And I tell them, I work one child at a time.” That, to me, is so beautiful. “ I work one child at a time.”
Marion also said that she was overwhelmed hearing their stories and the pain of taking in everything that happened to these children—being raped, losing their parents and other family members to HIV/AIDS, being hungry. She said, “I thought my heart was breaking from all the painful things I heard. But then, I realized that my heart wasn’t breaking at all. It was growing.”