The titular orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, provides the setting and subject of the quietly affecting docu “Little Heaven.” Lieven Corthouts’ film concentrates on one girl, Lydia Berhanu, who on her 13th birthday learns that she, like all the children there, is HIV-positive, the camera present to record her shock and tears. Free of exposition, relying solely on voiceover diary entries and close-up observation, the docu traces Berhanu’s lively interaction with other kids, calm acceptance of her illness and drive to succeed. Its unwavering focus dispels any lurking sentimentality in this oddly upbeat entry; PBS and cable distribs should take notice.
Corhouts spent two years at the orphanage, capturing the daily rituals of the kids, who infuse their every chore with energy and mischievous joy. Darker emotions, abandonment issues and religious prejudice are effectively handled by warm, empathetic counselors. Although Berhanu is shown apart from the others, as a heart condition prevents her from joining in group games, the other children are drawn to her sweetness, ready responsiveness and unpretentious intelligence. Indeed, her expressive face lingers in the mind long after the film ends.