A Song for Africa, By P.A. Sévigny, The Suburban

A Song for Africa
Curtin documentary wins prize

Last week, Montreal filmmaker John Curtin won the Canadian International Development Agency’s Deborah Fletcher prize for his documentary A Song for Africa.
Following the screening of the film at the Ex-Centris media centre on St. Lawrence Blvd., a solid crowd of people lined up to congratulate the filmmaker.
“Lord, it’s just great to see something positive come out of Africa,” said one guest. “Those children will be the ones who will save their nation,” said another.
With a lot of work and very little money, Curtin’s film tells the story of how Jennifer Banas, a Canadian woman out of Spruce Groves, Alberta, had only four months to transform a ragtag group of Ugandan orphans into a superb professional choir worthy of a North American tour.
The film also does an eloquent job as it describes the lives of the choir’s orphans who have all lost their parents to AIDS, malaria or Uganda’s ongoing civil war. One child, only six years old, was named Moses after being found in the swamp, having been left there by his mother to die. Irene, another child, was dragged from bar to bar by her alcoholic father after her mother died of AIDS.
According to Eric Barnouw, who wrote Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, his seminal monograph on the subject, this medium can assume any number of positions when dealing with its subject. Documentary film can be a reporter, an advocate, a promoter or a poet. It can be the bugler and the drummer behind a working war machine just as much as it can be the guerrilla or the protester against that machine.
Curtin’s film is first and foremost a reporter as it tells the story of these children and their song in as rich, objective and sensuous a manner as possible. Opening scenes of woodworkers building children’s coffins provides the sub-text of the African tragedy that is always lurking close to the surface of this film’s narrative.
While early airport scenes of the Banas family leaving for Africa had people in the cinema dabbing at their eyes, the film soon picks up the choir’s own beat as the momentum keeps on building until it’s showtime for both the children and the viewer, who is drawn into the choir’s ultimate destiny.
Curtin’s film is also an advocate as the statistics continue to speak for themselves. Within the next decade, over 14 million African children will be orphans and no one seems to quite know what to do about this situation.
The Watoto Children’s Choir is part of an evangelical church effort run by a Canadian pastoral couple who felt they had no other choice but to do what they could for these children. Not only does the church run its own orphanage for 1,300 children, it runs an orphans village.
To those who believe western religions and their varied evangelical movements should be banned from Africa, Curtin said he could only answer their question by asking one of his own.
“So what have you done for the children of Africa?”
As much as Curtin is proud of his film, the filmmaker said he must deal with the imperatives of “What’s next?”
He is presently working on a documentary about the sudden collapse of everyday good manners in today’s western world and said arranging the financing for this kind of film project is always very difficult.
Sending three people to Uganda for just two weeks cost the project over $10,000 — without counting the work done in Canada and the States. However, while the choir’s tour was a big success, Curtin’s film will surely continue to ask the big question.
“So what have you done for the children of Africa?”
2007-10-17

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