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Interview: Documentary director Lieven Corthouts

The young residents of Little Heaven.

Lydia is thirteen when she is told she has HIV. She moves to an orphanage for teenagers with the same disease called Little Heaven. Director Lieven Corthouts follows Lydia and the other orphans, revealing that the coming of age is universal, wherever you are and whatever circumstances you must face.

Last November Little Heaven made it to the IDFA stage – a real accomplishment, according to Corthouts. “This is the goal for every documentary maker I guess. It’s great. And I have the feeling that it is being received pretty well. The Q&A I did after one of the screenings became very extensive and people were truly interested in the story behind the film. People seemed to really feel the connection between me and the kids and they wonder how I got so close to them.”

Corthouts lived in the orphanage for two years while making the film. He slept in the boys’ room and lived his life like the children lived theirs. “I never helped in the kitchen or with serving the meals. That way I could really become one of the children and I could build up a bond with them. It became so normal for them to have me around that they didn’t notice the camera anymore. They never looked in the lens.”

Lydia was chosen as the main character in the film because Corthouts felt a real connection with her. “I don’t know why,” he says, “but I really felt a connection with her straight away. And that is important. I am convinced that you can only make a good portrait of someone if there is a connection.”

The filmmaker was there when Lydia was told that she had HIV, one of the most intense scenes of the film. “I met Lydia when she lived in the other orphanage and I knew she was going to turn thirteen soon. I spent six months around her, two or three days a week. We knew each other, but I had never filmed her yet. This conversation was the first thing I filmed for the documentary. It was a very hard thing to be part of.”

Little Heaven is all about growing up. But it also contains a bigger message. “All children in the world have the same problems, even though some of them have HIV. That’s just something I wanted to portray and this film really tells the genuine story about these kids.” Corthouts also said that most films about Africa are sad and that he wanted to make something lighter. “Even though it’s about Aids, this film shows happiness and hope.”

After living with the kids for two years, Corthouts took three months to edit the movie – it was a way to digest everything he had experienced at the orphanage. “It was a very intense period and I miss the kids now. I spoke to them yesterday on the phone. They asked me when I would come to visit again and we spoke a bit about Beyonce and Justin Bieber.”

Corthouts is currently working on another documentary about a refugee camp on the border of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. “I want to show how teenagers are doing their thing; going to school, having their hair done at the hairdresser and taking taxis. And this is all happening in the camp. I want to show that it’s kind of a city in its own right.”

UPDATE: Little Heaven will be premiering in the UK as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on 28 and 29 March. For tickets and more information visit the festival’s website.

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