Highly successful docu both on a cinematic and a consciousness-raising level, Willie Ebersol’s “Ithuteng (Never Stop Learning)” also forms a focal point for several converging news items, first and foremost the story of Ithuteng itself. Founded in the late ’90s by the amazing Jacqueline Maarohanye (“Mama Jackey”) to combat the desperate conditions created by poverty, crime and AIDS in the South African township of Soweto, the school boasts an extraordinary track record in rehabilitating the victims and perpetrators of violence. Inspirational but never preachy, docu is scheduled to air on HBO in December.
More than 6,500 students between the ages of 13 and 26 have passed through Ithuteng, some as boarders but most attending after school and on Saturdays for programs that combine academic activities, sports and peer counseling — and also feature “educational” time behind bars in a maximum security prison. Structured around the experiences of three such enrollees, docu examines how Ithuteng gives youths a sense of purpose, solidarity and self-worth.
Twenty-two-year-old Lebo was one of Mama Jackey’s original six students. Lebo was gang-raped and managed to recover only to be raped a second time. H.I.V. positive as a result (the already high incidence of rape in South Africa is worsened by the superstition that intercourse with a virgin will cure AIDS), she is treated like a leper. Speaking frankly to the camera about her ordeal, her hard-won serenity eloquently testifies to the therapeutic efficaciousness of Ithuteng and of the value of a single life, no matter how short (Lebo died of AIDS some months after the film wrapped).
Dineo, a 14-year-old orphan, arrives at the school after being raped in her foster home by the head of an anti-abuse charity. The filmmakers recreate the assault in a cinematic version of the kind of dramatized reconstructions that the students themselves perform to help them work through trauma.
Victor, 26, went from an unrepentant, lethally knife-wielding criminal to a dedicated teacher and future leader of Ithuteng. Not one to hide his epiphany under a bushel, he assures the camera that he indeed will change the world.
Docu was something of a family affair: Helmer Willie, the 16-year-old son of NBC sports exec Dick Ebersol, was recruited to direct by pic’s young producers, his older brother Charles and Charles’ buddy Kip Kroeger. The film was finally edited by Charles and their mother, actress Susan St. James. Between the shooting and editing, however, the Ebersols themselves became front page news when a tragic plane crash left Charles and his father injured and his youngest brother, Teddy, dead.
Prior to its official release, occasional fest and private screenings of the film have had an enormous impact, resulting in an humanitarian award for the docu at the Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride and an Image Award for Mama Jackey from the NAACP. More practically, the Ithuteng Institute itself was bestowed with new facilities from the National Basketball Assn. and a gift of $1.1 million from Oprah Winfrey.