Locarno 2021 review: Walk with Angels (Tomasz Wysokiński)

As hyperbolic as this statement may seem, a reality many people in South Africa face is that approximately every hour a child goes missing somewhere in the country. This harrowing statistic is what opens Walk with Angels (Spacer z Aniołami), the haunting documentary by Tomasz Wysokiński, who journeys to Johannesburg where he follows Jeremaiah Marobyane, an activist who attempts to help resolve this problem by educating the residents of townships to be vigilant against this very real danger posed to their children. He is also working to locate Angie, an infant from his community that recently disappeared, believed to have fallen victim to the macabre rituals of some local practitioners of dark magic. This film presents audiences – both local and global – with a terrifying image of an issue that is plaguing the nation, but is rarely spoken about outside of immediate situations where one would be confronted with the horrifying details. Wysokiński, who represents a new generation of European documentarians focusing on less-explored issues that persist in the global south, carefully ventures through the graffiti-laden streets of Johannesburg, telling the story of people who have fallen victim to hateful actions which can permanently remove any trust an individual has in a world that seems void of compassion when the targets of violence are the most vulnerable of us all.

Walk with Angels is not a documentary with a singular purpose, and while it takes a very direct approach to exploring the issues at the heart of the subject, it is composed of a blend of South African history and contemporary issues, as if to imply the very real possibility of history repeating itself. From the first moment it’s extremely clear that the spectre of Apartheid lingers heavily over the film – it is frequently mentioned, while Jeremaiah, as the film’s main focus, acts as our guide through this world. He actively comments on both his experiences growing up during this period of repellent social injustice and on navigating the equally treacherous world in which Apartheid may be officially over in a legal and political sense, but its social aftershocks and scars of decades of violence remain indelibly etched into the country’s history. The vision of South Africa we see here is far from the uplifting concept of the “Rainbow Nation” that has often been used to describe its years since embracing democracy. This is an unsettling portrait of a country still standing in the shadow of oppression, where many feel that it is still a sin to be born black, and where it isn’t uncommon to hear songs in which the chorus repeats the words “even if we die, we don’t care”, which informs much of what propels this film to be a disconcerting but impactful piece of social and cultural history.

Wysokiński combines broad discussions on the lasting impact of Apartheid with a more specific focus on the crisis surrounding the abduction of children from rural and township areas, which is where the film is mostly concentrated. Despite the gentle title, Walk with Angels is not a film for the faint of heart – this is a brutal, harrowing voyage into a social epidemic that is rarely given the exposure it needs in order for any real change to be made. The cruel deaths of these children are treated like an unalterable statistic, something that far too many people have accepted as a reality – but for the director, telling these stories (and the refusal to leave out the disturbing details) is vital. Thousands of children are stolen from their homes and schools every year, many of them only a few months old, becoming the victims of savage rituals by perverted individuals who believe their innocence and youth are valuable components in their traditional medicines and deranged practices. This film presents audiences with the dark side of human nature, where the most defenseless individuals are used as tools for the malicious deeds of others, the manipulation of innocence and purity becoming a widespread issue that has brought nothing but pain to countless families, as we see throughout this film.

The director is passionate about his material – it is evident in every frame that he is truly invested in telling this story – but he never interferes, using Jeremaiah as a guide and allowing the people at the heart of this crisis to tell their own stories. There is value in hearing many firsthand perspectives – they may be incredibly difficult to hear, and most of the individuals interviewed for the film are not hesitant to speak on the horrifying details, but it is essential to understand the full scope of this problem. The film is visceral and absolutely terrifying, straddling the boundary between shockingly raw and outright exploitative in many instances. However, Wysokiński has too much respect for his subjects to resort to sensationalism, using the shocking details as a way of raising awareness, which ultimately should inspire a change of some sort, even if it is only through making the global audience aware of such a repulsive reality. Whether through the appalling images or the haunting sound of wailing mothers who have lost all hope that their children are alive, Walk with Angels shows no hesitation in portraying the bleak reality for many parents who become victims of a vicious cycle of violence that tears apart families and entire communities.

Walk with Angels portrays one of the darkest aspects of contemporary South African culture, presenting it with unflinching, brutal honesty. The details are not hidden, and are instead shown explicitly, the director refusing to soften the raw impact of the images he puts on screen. Wysokiński is pushing boundaries, often at the risk of going too far – but he does convey a powerful message to a global audience that may not have been aware of the issue, but only come to learn these horrifying facts through the director’s exploration of the underlying social issues. The film is an absolutely devastating image of a broken nation, one where the social and economic divide has continued to be an insurmountable challenge for many, and where such horrifying acts as those represented here are seen as abnormal but unchangeable, a vicious reality rather than something that can be solved, with any attempts being considered futile. It simmers with unhinged fury and relentless despair, shocking and provoking us into a state of complete unease – and by the end of the film, we come to realize that many of these images will be difficult to forget, some moments destined to be embedded in our memories. Which is perhaps the only way to bring awareness to the plight of countless people across a country that continues to be weighed down by the sins of a few malicious forefathers and the indiscretions of some truly insidious people today.

Walk with Angels (Tomasz Wysokiński)