We Are Together (Thina Simunye) Review
Call me cynical but I was strongly predisposed to dislike We Are Together, which seemed to be based on the idea that poor black people could cheer themselves up through singing. I’d quite like to see a film where poor black people cheered themselves up by doing really well at school and getting rewarding and well paid jobs. It’s a potentially slightly patronising and reductive view of black people – good at music and sport, not so great at intellectual pursuits. Simple pleasures for simple folk.
But – guess what – it isn’t like that at all.
We Are Together is the rather beautiful story of 12-year-old Slindile Moya, an Aids orphan in the rural province of South Africa called KwaZuluNatal. Slindile is much better off than most Aids orphans in sub-Saharan Africa as she is given a home at an orphanage called Agape, run by the incredibly cheerful and always singing ‘Gogo’ Zodwa Mqadi. From the start the film establishes that music is at the cultural heart of South Africa. Slindile is also fortunate in that, although her parents are dead, her grown-up sister has managed to keep the family home and Slindile can still go back and see them, so she still has a real family as well as her fellow orphans.
The children of Agape form a choir. They basically sing constantly, producing the beautiful harmonies of internationally renowned groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo as if instinctively. From this springs the idea of the kids going to Europe on a fundraising tour – Agape is running out of space. Unfortunately the tour has to be cancelled, but they decide to proceed with recording the album anyway, and enlist the help of South African kwaito star, Zwai Bala. His arrival at the studio causes some changes, particularly amongst the girls; Slindile even washes her hair! But when the orphanage is destroyed in a fire, and the children move to temporary, overcrowded accommodation, even their unquenchable optimism fades a little bit.
We Are Together is a lovely story about hope in the face of adversity that most of us can only dream of. Slindile’s family stay together, no matter what, because, as they sing, they are family, and that sustains them. Without overtly criticising the South African government, Paul Taylor’s film bears witness to the appalling sight of Slindile’s brother, Sifiso, being carried by his sister into the hospital which can only give him Vitamin B pills and sends him home to die. This is the grim reality for the average South African who cannot afford expensive retro-virals drugs. But in the midst of death we are in life; it’s not callousness, but more an acknowledgement that life must and does go on, and music is at the heart of it – Zwai explains it best – it has a power to heal.
The film was made for only £8,000 and sometimes that shows, with a few neckache inducing whip pans and occasionally dodgy sound, but this can be forgiven; and the image of the Agape orphans playing in the snow in New York, and doing their first photoshoot, will stay with you for a long time, and once again proves that true stories are the best stories…
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