Children of the Light
Review by Mark Schwab
When Dawn Engle's documentary about Desmond Tutu - Children of the Light - came across my desk for review, I was shocked to learn that this was really the first comprehensive visual profile of the Nobel Prize-winning activist. Always being cast in the long shadow of Nelson Mandela, I guess it was easy to forget the impact of Archbishop Tutu's anti-Apartheid mission. If Mandela was South Africa's George Washington, then Tutu is its John Adams; supportive, fiercely intelligent, and absolutely critical to the movement of reversing a horrendous government policy of destroying liberty and equality. It was long past time for a documentary to be made about his life and thank goodness director Engle was able to put it together while Tutu is still alive and fesity even at age 82.
But Children of the Light still felt like a bit of a letdown for me. The documentary certainly has plenty of solid archival footage and Tutu gets plenty of screen time but it just made enough little missteps which kept me from being as emotionally involved as I should have been given this man's amazing life. It covers a TON of ground about South Africa's complex history in just 90 minutes and maybe that was part of the problem. In trying to cover every base, the narrative dissolves.
For example, I'm sure it looked good on paper to have Tutu's daughter Naomi narrate the film but her readings are stiff and obviously "read". They come across as if she had only one take to get it down. A professional actor would have been more appropriate and this subject would have been able to draw a big name.
Another misstep was the music. It is composed well, but does not seem to work in harmony with the edit and it also felt constant with no room for the viewer to just breathe a bit to absorb the material. It competes with the visuals instead of complementing them.
As we chart Desmond Tutu's rise from poverty to being an extraordinary public official and man of the church the photographs and footage do bring the history into focus but it takes a bit of work for the viewer. And Tutu's modern day headshot interview shows he has lost none of his sharp mind or passion for human rights which genuinely inspires.
To sum up, I am certainly glad Children of the Light exists and come to think of it, it would be an excellent doc to show in parts for a good AP World History class lesson. But as a stand alone "movie" documentary, it comes up just a bit short considering the excellent material and wonderful subject.