Beneath the Stars (Sweden/South Africa, 2004, Directors: Titti Johnson and Helgi Felixson, 105 minutes): The film follows Frieda Darvel, one of Cape Town’s many street kids, as she pursues her dream of leaving the streets for a singing career. At the beginning, things look bright. Frieda has been selected for South Africa’s “Popstars” TV show, and makes quite an impression on the nation. But all the offers of help (apartment, voice lessons, recording contracts) come to nothing and pretty soon, Frieda is back on the street, sniffing glue with her boyfriend. Though there is a sort of family for Frieda here, there is no future. Many people try to help her, but we’re left feeling uneasy when one of her early backers secures funding for a “reality show” on homeless teens, and when it falls through, simply disappears. In fact, I felt uneasy a lot of the time watching the film, because if people recognize Frieda at all, they immediately demand that she sing for them. Although she clearly loves to sing, it becomes obvious that for many she is just a performing animal and they have no real interest in her as a person. The line between helping her and using her was even a bit fuzzy when I began to think about the filmmakers. That is, until the story took a bit of a twist.
After being invisible for the first two thirds of the film, suddenly directors Johnson and Felixson quite literally enter the frame and invite Frieda to come back with them to Sweden for three months. A reluctant Frieda finally agrees and it is in Sweden where she is finally able to kick drugs and make a real commitment to staying off the street.
She returns to South Africa with some trepidation, but at the film’s end, she is living in Cape Town and beginning to create an independent life for herself.
The film is generally quite effective with the exception of a couple of things. I thought the middle dragged a lot, with far too much footage of sleeping street kids. The misery of their lives was well apparent by this point in the film and it slowed the pace down unnecessarily. Secondly, due to the episodic structure, the film felt a bit disjointed in a few places. We see Frieda with different hairstyles in successive scenes and it makes it unclear how much time has passed. All in all, a powerful film and one that shows that that the personal involvement of the filmmakers is not always a bad thing. The film reminded me a little of Born Into Brothels in that respect.