One of the most remarkable things about Africa is how rare it is to see Africans cry. You meet so many human beings there who are forced to endure the most unthinkable, unconscionable poverty, disease and neglect; and yet invariably they do so with a smile so big and true it breaks your heart. How, you wonder, do people literally grin and bear such horror? Among the many things that makes Paul Taylor’s documentary We Are Together so moving, therefore, is its observation of African grief. Don’t get me wrong, there are laughs galore and plenty to smile about in this uplifting tale of a group of AIDS orphans who live at a school called Agape in a village in KwaZulu Natal, and who are hoping to come to England for a singing tour – the music itself is enough to make the soul soar. But the unflinching, unsentimental documentation of how a family of children – already orphaned by AIDS – now deal with the death of their beloved brother Sifiso from the same disease, is quite devastating. "Remember", says one sister, displaying an incredible sense of human empathy as she comforts her wailing younger sibling. "We are not the only ones going through this." Indeed. It is estimated there are more than 1.2 million AIDS orphans in South Africa alone.
Taylor first came across the Moya family when volunteering at Agape in 2003. "Profoundly affected" by his experiences, he returned in 2004 with producer Teddy Leifer and they shot the film over the next three years; picking up, along the way, the support of (Red), the company launched by Bono in 2006 to harness profits from the private sector into the Global Fund, and EMI, who have released a brilliant not-for-profit CD album of the music from the film. I am not surprised such corporate giants have thrown their weight behind the project. The story of people dying of AIDS in Africa is hardly new. The story of human beings using music to triumph over adversity is no revelation either. But the freshness and honesty of Taylor’s documentary style, not to mention the astonishingly engaging personalities of the children involved and the amazing songs they sing, really set this film apart.
We Are Together was released in Britain this weekend, with all profits going to an educational fund for the children of Agape and others affected by HIV/AIDS which Taylor and Leifer have set up through their production company Rise. Check out the website: www.wearetogether.org; go and see the film; go and buy the CD. Not only will it enrich your life, it will make a difference to the lives of children who may not show it, with those beaming smiles, but who really, really need it.
I am hugely enjoying – if that’s not too inappropriate a word – Sir Hilary Synnott’s Bad Days in Basra: My Turbulent Time As Britain’s Man in Southern Iraq (I.B. Tauris, £17.99). From the outset, Synnott, who was our most senior representative in the Coalition Provisional Alliance in the south of the country, is refreshingly candid. "Ultimately," he admits as early as the Prologue, "the CPA (was) a failure". While the subject is of course depressing, shocking and essentially heavy-going, Synnott manages to find a lightness of touch in the telling which makes the book extremely engaging and distinguishes it from other, more relentlessly hard-going Iraq memoirs (at one point Synnott jokes that he almost considered calling his Bugger Basra!) Nevertheless there is a powerful message for the future at the book’s core; namely, that we should treat the "seductive line of argument that the Iraq experience was a worst-case anomaly… that the like will not occur again" with the utmost suspicion. In the current international climate, he argues, "it seems more, not less probable that the international community will be presented with challenges stemming from fragile states which directly or indirectly affect their interests." There is much talk of "lessons" being learnt about Iraq; but lessons, Synnott urges, once learned, must also be applied – no matter how difficult, awkward or expensive. (Let’s hope the US President elect, whoever he or she may be, is taking notes.)
An eminent former High Commissioner who later assumed what he describes as a "bizarre" role, being both ambassador to the Iraqis and the Americans as well as "quasi-colonial governor of four Iraqi provinces", Sir Hilary Synnott was by all accounts one of our most important and intelligent players in post-2003 Iraq. Until now, he has kept a low profile; as we approach the fifth anniversary of the invasion and must contemplate anew the extent and intractability of that "failure", it is a timely moment indeed for his clear-eyed, powerful, and humbling account of what were, and indeed still are, turbulent times.
I’ve just spent an indulgent hour or so gorging on the sumptuous 150 Vanity Fair Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition and could barely tear myself away. (Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008, until May 26). The magazine has always managed to juggle high politics with aspirational glamour and modish culture in a nonchalant, witty, zeitgeisty yet undeniably glamorous sort of way, and the scope of this exhibition exactly captures that spirit of glossy intelligence. Spanning the launch of Vanity Fair in 1913, via its relaunch in 1938, to the present day, a dazzling array of the century’s most iconic movers and shakers currently adorns the NPG’s walls: from Einstein to Hemingway; Garbo to Nijinsky; Princess Di to Arnie Schwarzenegger; Charlie Chaplin to George W. Bush. Represented too are some of the century’s greatest photographers – Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton, Man Ray, Helmut Newton, Mario Testino, and of course Annie Leibowitz; the genius image-maker now as synonymous with Vanity Fair in its modern manifestation as her forebear Edward Steichen once was. Simply glorious.
Next stop: Cranach the Elder at the Royal Academy, which I’ve heard is a revelation!
Four words: Mahler. Nine. Rattle. Berlin. Unfortunately only on CD, rather than coming-to-a-concert-hall-near-you, but a thrill for us Mahler/Rattle geeks nonetheless. (Mahler Symphony No.9, Simon Rattle/Berlin Philharmonic. EMI, 2 CDs, £12.99, or a bargainous £7.99 on iTunes). This is a sublime recording of this most majestic of symphonies; the luscious last movement in particular bettering even Rattle’s recent interpretation with the Vienna Philharmonic, which is no small feat. I downloaded it straight onto my iPod and have been wallowing in it ever since.
At the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 17th March, the eve of the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, superlative vocal ensemble The Sixteen are performing 16th-century Clement Janequin’s La Guerre, along with various Francisco Guerrero works and Poulenc’s haunting Figure humaine, which he wrote in reaction to the horrors of the German occ
upation of France during the Second World War. It’s my birthday that day – and I can’t think of a better present!