A stone’s throw from the Impala Platinum mine in South Africa, Freedom Park is a shanty town hell inhabited by sub-Saharan migrant workers that lacks even the most rudimentary community developments (running water, agriculture), and possesses a makeshift economy existing primarily to serve the whims of sexual predators. As a result, roughly 50% of the female citizenry, all of whom are de facto prostitutes, has contracted HIV. The documentary Tapologo circuitously follows a collection of nurses—most of whom are rehabilitated sex workers with AIDS themselves—who collectively founded the Tapologo Hospice in Freedom Park under the wing of a small group of doctors-cum-missionaries from the United Kingdom.
The objective of the hospice seems, at first glance, rather defeatist: The women who man the small pharmacies and make house calls throughout the disease-riddled town are fully aware of the infected population’s mortality rate, and in spite of attempts at prevention therapy (condom distribution, AIDS education sessions) the epidemic’s grip on the community has not slackened. The dignity of their efforts, however, is aptly summed up by a visiting Irish priest: After an individual has contracted the virus, he observes, Christianly care is the only useful ecclesiastical reaction. The Tapologo nurses not only prolong and improve the quality of their patients’ lives but of their own as well, and the smattering of oral histories in the film emphasize the medicinal properties of fraternal strength even in the face of moribund despair.
Structurally, the film would have benefited from pruning; much information is repeated out of necessity as we revisit the same characters multiple times and gradually piece together their autobiographies. And the attempt in the center of the documentary at representing a full day at the hospice with title cards heralding the start of each hour features far too many distractions—for example, cutaways to lengthy monologues from figures outside the facility—to properly capture the frenzied cadence of the profession. But the directors’ judicious patience with their subjects allows them to capture some remarkable storytelling, and even more impressive are the silent montages cycling through five-second video portraits of the hospice’s non-English speaking staff. Their worldly, fatigued stares are the most eloquent thing about Tapologo: They communicate the experience of having one foot in the grave but marching forward, regardless.
Tapologo premieres June 23 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2009. Click here for screening information.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.