Photo by griethendrickx.

Director and cinematographer Lieven Corthouts has been making documentaries for only a few years. His first film My Future followed the life of a 14-year-old Ethiopian girl named Tsega after finishing an important educational exam and waiting on the result, which could shape the remainder of her life. Similarly, his newest film Little Heaven follows a 13-year-old Ethiopian girl named Lydia. In this film, however, her future is shaped by a very different piece of news: Lydia is informed that she has HIV and must move to a new orphange for HIV-positive adolescents. 

Corthouts, a resident of both his native Belgium and Ethiopia, spoke with us about what attracted him to the project, how he gained the trust of the teenaged subjects of Little Heaven, and what he wants viewers to get from watching his film.  Little Heaven screens June 25 – 27 at Film Society as part of this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival, with Corthouts will be in person at all three screenings. 

Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to make the film?

I lived [in Addis Ababa]. Before I started this film I lived there for seven years, but before that I lived in a small village, where I started the film, then I went to the capital. Actually then I decided to go back to Europe, but a friend of mine was the founder of the orphanage and he asked me to make a small promotional film. They needed to build a new hut because rents are very high. So I went and I met Lydia and I said to them: “Okay, I will make a film, but I will make my film. I will not make a promotional film, but I will make my film and you can have a DVD and everything.” Because when I first met her it was obvious to me I had to make a film.

How did you meet Lydia exactly?

A few months before I started the film I went to see the small kids and at the age of thirteen they go to a bigger hut. I just met her and it was like, even though there was a big cultural barrier, there was a big connection. And with the other kids I also had a big connection because I speak their language, but with her there was an understanding.

Can you speak about what the filmmaking process was like on Little Heaven? How long were you there shooting footage?

So when I met Lydia I told my friend I would make the film, but I would need time. So the first two months I had to live somewhere, so I rented a small room in the capitol and spent one month there without filming, just playing with the kids. And, knowing in advance that she would be moving to the other orphanage, I decided: if she moves, I will move with her. It's impossible to make an intimate film if you don't live with the subjects. I decided I would stay until I finished the film, so I ended up staying two years.

Were there any challenges while filming?

Film-wise the main problem was electricity, but I had the same problem in the vilage because after the rainy season there's only one day free of rain.  24 hours raining, 24 hours not, and it's not guaranteed. So it's tough, not for my batteries but for the transformer. It was just a difficulty. But the main problem was that my subjects were all teenagers so I had to go out every two weeks with some friends and drink coffee or something because otherwise I spent all of my time with them. I would go with them to school, go back with them after, then go to school again the next day. And not filming—because I stayed three months without filming.  After three months I decided to film alone, without a crew, in order to stay intimate. I lived in the room with the boys. I lived in a bunk bed.

Have there been any screenings of Little Heaven in Ethiopia?

Yeah. We did a screening one month ago on two screens in the capitol for free, so there were a lot of people. And if I find the funding, I think it's very important we screen the film in villages to show that the medicine exists. The children take it every day. And most people in Ethiopia—in the countryside where 90% live—don't know about the existance of the drugs. So I want to screen the film in the villages, like a mobile cinema.

What was the reception of the film in Ethiopia?

It was great. There are some jokes in the film that people in the States and Europe do not understand so I put them in on purpose for the Ethiopian people.

I read online that Lydia passed away very recently.

Yes, she passed away three or four days ago so this will be the first screening since then. I will not watch the screening.

Was she able to see the film before her untimely death?

Yes, not entirely. They have exams now so that plan was to screen it after the exams so we could talk about it.

I noticed that there were many religious aspects to the film. The children pray and have posters of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on their walls.  Was that something the administration in the orphanage promote?

No, they don't. It is a private orphanage. It's a very religious country. 50% are Muslim and 50% are Christian. Also, I think for the kids, it is important. Not really the religion, but to have something. To have a hope, something they can trust. They pray every day and go to church every Sunday.

How aware were the children on a day-to-day basis of your presence? Do you think that it affected their actions or reactions?

It always has an effect. Filmmakers say it does't affect things, but it does. I try to reduce it to a minimum, but I was always there with a camera and the children even filmed some things. You always have an influence as a filmmaker. They were very natural before the camera. They didn't care about it any more after a while. The kids would speak with me about football and other things, but we cut it out. Only in the end of the film did we put in their interactions with me. They were like friends after a while.

Your film, for the most part, is without music or scoring. However, there are a few key scenes with jazz underscoring. Can you please speak a little bit about this choice?

It was difficult because at first I said no music, but then the cleaning scene—I had to put music to it because without music it didn't work. First, I asked a Belgian composer to make it, but he didn't have time so he said just to choose a track. And the other music is Ethiopian dance music I used when Lydia is dancing and she is very young.

Lydia seemed like an extremely intelligent person and wise beyond her years. Was she an easy person to speak to? Was she a happy person?

Yes, she was. Not always happy, but I think that was because she was a teenager. She was very intelligent. There was one scene in the taxi—after they tell her she has HIV and she takes a taxi to the second orphanage—the first time I filmed it it was not so good, so I asked her if we could redo it and she asked me if she had to wear the same clothes. In the beginning, I explained to everybody how we make a film but I totally forgot that she had on different clothes, so she pointed that out to me. Also, when she writes “I want to be happy everyday” on paper she had written it and it was normally above her bed before I got there, but it fell down. So I told her: “if you put it up again call me and I can film it.” She did, and I didn't ask for English but she wrote it in English, and then she asked me if it was spelled correctly. I told her there was one mistake and she told me: “We have to film it again. It has to be correct.”

Ultimately, what is the mesage you wish your viewers to take away from the film?

Even though these kids have HIV, they are orphans, and they live in Ethiopia, they have basically the same life if somebody provides something like structure or the drugs. They have the same dreams and hopes like children here. Their background is different, but the rest is the same. I am fed up with the way they show the horn of Africa, especially Ethiopia, Sumalia, and Sudan—it is always misery. So I wanted to make a hopeful film.  

Do have any other projects in the works?

I just wrote a documentary script. What's strange about documentary funding is you have to write a script. It's about teenagers in refugee camps in the horn of Africa. It's about how a camp changes into a real city because they are the fastest growing cities in all of Africa. They have markets, shops, schools, prostitution, radio, newspapers, everything. It will be about children that work in either the radio or newspapers and go to school—I still haven't decided. 

Little Heaven screens Monday, June 25 at 4:00pm; Tuesday, June 26 at 6:30pm; and Wednesday, June 27 at 9:00pm in the Human Rights Watch Festival.