Some films have brutal scenes that are unwatchable. Walk with Angels does it with words. Shocking is too small a word to describe some of the behaviours people talk about with resigned horror in this documentary about former child soldier Jerry who now attempts to reunite kidnapped/stolen children with their families in the unforgiving townships of South Africa. Jerry has a kind face, a mellifluous voice and life experiences most of us could not even conjure up in our worst nightmares. At the start of the film we see him picking his way through the pitifully impoverished dirt tracks of a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, stopping to chat, avuncular fashion, to the groups of children he encounters. He gives out a few rand here and there so they can buy chips for themselves, dispenses wisdoms about not playing out too late and how to look your opponent in the eye as you throw out a punch in a boxing bout.
He has come to see a woman whose 6 month old daughter was taken from her some years before. Jerry takes on the uncertain task of finding the girl, armed only with his unshakable faith, an ability to gain the trust of the people he meets with his no nonsense approach and his willingness to follow every lead.
His search leads him through a malignant maze of human depravity, brutal superstition, satanic ritual, drugs, poverty, hopelessness and the bleeding underbelly of the legacy of apartheid.
“Apartheid destroyed South Africa,” he opines sadly. “It has left terrible scars.” He bears the scars of his own history by way of a missing hand. But his internal demons he keeps in check with soldierly discipline. There is an aggression inside me, he says softly, that I have to keep down after aggro with a gang of teenage thugs.
But even Jerry can’t keep down the tears as he listens to graphic descriptions of what witch doctors do to stolen babies in order to gain ‘power’ over the spirits. Might the girl he is looking for have fallen into such evil hands? He weeps at the thought and we weep with him.
In the screening I attended, several people walked out. An intense bleakness nips at the heels of Jerry at every turn on his dogged journey. Yet there is something so solid and reassuring about Jerry himself that the film, despite its unflinching harshness,reminds you of the good there is in the world – put there by people like Jerry.