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Interview: ‘Angels in Exile’ Director Billy Raftery Talks The Street Kids Of Durban & How To Partner Social Activism With Documentary

Interview: 'Angels in Exile' Director Billy Raftery Talks The Street Kids Of Durban & How To Partner Social Activism With Documentary

Audiences were captivated by the visceral, intimate look into the lives of street kids in Durban, South Africa, captured by filmmaker Billy Raftery in his documentary “Angels in Exile,” which premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last week (review here). However, one couldn’t help but also be drawn in to Billy’s story and the circumstances surrounding this film that was ten years in the making. We sat down with Raftery and his producer Adam Paul Smith to chat about the making of “Angels in Exile,” how he was able to gain access into this population of rogue street kids, and what the future holds for social activism documentary filmmaking. 

Eventually narrated by Charlize Theron, Raftery wasn’t looking for a documentary subject when he went to South Africa for a surf trip in 2003. The subject found him and he was immediately taken in by the story. “Initially when I went down, I was visiting a friend, and we did this surf trip from Cape Town and worked our way up to Durban. Along the way, Jeffries Bay was one of the first stops where I noticed a heap of street kids, and I was blown away by their persistence, but I was more shocked by my own curiosity to find out more, how can these kids hang out, huff glue, and raise hell with nobody telling them what to do?” he said. “So just my intrigue and curiosity led me to them and wanting to go back and do something else.”

Raftery shot a few initial things, and then returned to South Africa after graduating from college to pursue his interest in these kids. He “would collect footage, bring it back and edit it. And in that process, I started realizing a little bit more that it wasn’t just going to be like what I thought—a year shooting a doc, and then we’d edit and have a film, and be in film festivals, obviously that’s not the case 8 years later. I managed to cut these little pieces together, and use that trailer to get people to support this foundation I founded, the Children Rise Foundation. That’s what we used and set up as a 501c3 to finance the film, and the mission of that nonprofit is to create a documentary and use it to gain global consciousness [of this issue] through the medium of documentary and film.” 

During this time, one of Raftery’s surf buddies, a former street kid turned pro surfer introduced him to Tom Hewitt, the founder of Umthombo, the outreach group featured in the film. “Tom’s initial idea was to work with the government and figure out a way to lobby with them and do certain things within the confines of the government, to circle around the corruption and put some laws and governance on these children using his expertise, figure out how to deal with this the right way. He wound up marrying Mandi, the former street kid who’s in the film,” he said. “Eventually, Umthombo came into being maybe a year or two into the film, and Umthombo’s been the mainstay and the main umbrella for our work with the street kids, which encompasses our street work with the Durban Street Team. This idea he had when I met him is now up and running, it’s staffed by 45 former homeless kids, some social welfare workers and executives that run the nonprofit.” In fact, surfing, the hobby that led him to Durban in the first place has become an important and successful branch of their outreach with the street kids, with a program called Surfers Not Street Kids is supported by South African pro-surfer Jordy Smith and O’Neill. 

While Raftery would like to use the film as a springboard to launch awareness of this global issue, he recognizes that as a filmmaker, he is limited by, but also inspired by the particular focus on these particular kids. “That’s what caught me, I didn’t sign up for something or want to go make a documentary, I was just intrigued by the kids and had a little bit of a skill set using a camera from college. I met them, and seeing the most visible and intense pocket of this population around the world, with the huffing glue and the prostitution rings, it was so visible and graphic,” he explained. “The characters I met, Zuleika and Ariel, as people, are just so courageous and inspiring, what they’ve been through and what they’ve come to be as adults. The idea is to use them as the face of the population, so it’s not just South Africa, these are the same kids that we see in America, that we see in Uganda or wherever.” 

One of the main subjects of “Angels in Exile,” Ariel, was one of the first street kids that Raftery met in North Beach in Durban. “Their energy is unbelievable and so fun, they have that innocence and they’re kids, but they’re also like hanging out with your boy too, because they’re hilarious and total jokesters and have this street smart wit that’s so elevated for children, it’s crazy,” he says about meeting them. Ariel’s fluency in English (most kids speak English, but Zulu is the main language) helped Raftery meet other street kids, saying “he was my in to the kids on Point, who were the most hectic bunch. Through that, I’d just go to these little extensions of Point Road and the different pockets where different crews of kids would hang out. That’s where I met Zuleika eventually. I knew the kids in her area, and Mandi [from Umthombo] and I had already been hanging out, and she took me down there one day and we walk up to this group of kids, and she [Zuleika] was like ‘what are you doing down here, white boy, oh my god.’ She was so cool, flailing her arms all around and high fiving me, giving me pounds. I’ve never seen a girl that outspoken and that gregarious, and just goofy and fun, I was like she would be such a great person to tell the female side of the story of the street.” 

Raftery knew he had two great documentary subjects in Ariel and Zuleika because, “they can articulate so well their feelings and where they’re at, as these kids. The beautiful thing about them, not having a day in the classroom, any education whatsoever, they could comprehend that this film might not help them right now or today, somehow they just got the idea, and instilled it in all of their friends and spread word around the streets that Billy’s here to make this documentary.” This concept was crucial to Raftery’s access to the kids, and to their openness about their tough situation, rife with violence, crime, and drugs on camera. Raftery says, this desire to have their story told was “the mantra they carried around, if it doesn’t help me today or tomorrow, it can help my brothers and sister that are still on the street years from now. They just had this comprehension of what we were trying to do for that population for them, they got this loftier concept, more of a theory at the time, of trying to do something for them to help them. Raftery “would say to them ‘just act like I’m a kid with you.’ ” 

The close relationships he had with the kids comes through in the film, and this access is what make the film feel so intimate and real, and so dangerous at the same time. There are scenes of violent street fights where he is literally on the ground running with the street kids, and the film gives us a sense of that everyday reality that they have to live with. Producer Adam Paul Smith says, “Billy underplays completely the danger of the situation. He talks about it like it’s pretty laid back, relaxed. It is not, it is not somewhere you will ever want to be. He had the wherewithal gumption to do it. Even though you were kind of protected in a way because he was with the kids, you’re in the wild. Anything could change at any moment.” 

One of the things that the film communicates so well is the power of the long-term approach to these issues, as opposed to the quick fix. The outreach workers at Umthombo always puts the decision about whether to come off the streets to the kids themselves, for better or for worse in that moment. Raftery mentioned, “how empowering it is for them to give them the decision, the responsibility to make themselves better. I thought it was really cool to watch them, every time; they still put the responsibility back in the kids’ hands. That’s really empowering to the kids. They see former street children as these images of reform and rehabilitation and success, so they aspire to be that. The former street kids inspire them on the daily by who’ve they’ve become and grown to be and what they’ve overcome. The quick fixes obviously don’t work, it’s just a little band aid. They [Umthombo] have the right recipe and it just ends up working.”

That inspiration in the former street kids, current Umthombo workers inspired Raftery as well, saying “that’s what I think gave me the inspiration, the vigor again and again to go back and keep shooting. I did see the light at the end of the tunnel, even if it didn’t seem anywhere within reach at that time, because these former street children who are my contemporaries made it, so I knew that these kids could do it, because they wanted to be them, even though they wouldn’t act that way quite often, they eventually did.”  

With eight years of footage, trying to edit down the stories into one cohesive film was a definite challenge. Raftery says about the storytelling process, “we identified the two kids, which made it kind of easier earlier on… in the edit we definitely would map out all the peripheral friends, characters; half of a wall covered with all of our notes of what tangible scenes we have of kids doing what and whenever. You lose a lot in the shuffle. There’s so many things, I interviewed all kinds of government officials, and anytime I’d cut them in, it just slowed it down, it was boring, it was a very verite film, so we wanted to keep that vibe going, and let kids to speak and to give them the spotlight.” But that footage won’t just stay locked in a safe, as Smith says about their plans for all of the stories that didn’t make the cut, “what we’re going to do is these featurettes, little short films, do a handful of them and use them as nuggets to get people to share online to start the viral nature of it, to build community around it, with the hope that it will help market the film, it will engage people who haven’t seen the film, and be enough beyond a trailer.” With so many different stories to tell, they have more than enough to use for their cause of spreading awareness about this issue. 

Smith works for the company Act 4, whose mandate is to create and support socially conscious and politically relevant content. Their intention is to streamline the process between awareness and action, the momentum of which can be lost after a screening of a film of this nature if it’s not immediately accessible to audience members inspired to help. As Smith says, “you have the person’s attention, let’s do something with it, they want to do something, how do we do it? What we hope, with this film, is that it will be a vehicle and an example of what we’re trying to do and that is to provide a platform that will live online, that will facilitate action of some sort.” They are hoping that “Angels in Exile” will be the tip of the spear for this movement, and have plans to build the action platform with Tom Hewitt of Umthombo, raising awareness with the film and then using that support to grow the movement work with other organizations around the world. As Smith says, “the idea of coupling together film with actual action, obviously is not a new idea, but I believe that it’s not being done well right now. The film, we hope, will be the vehicle to drive attention, and awareness to it, and I don’t think that you cannot be moved by this story. You can’t not connect with these kids, whether or not you have that feeling, that desire to do something about it, it’s not going to be everyone, but there will be people out there who will respond in that way and we want to make sure that we facilitate that to action.” 

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