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Shouting Silent

Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, NY 10013; 212-925-0606
Produced by Xoliswa Sithole and Renee Rosen
Directed by Xoliswa Sithole and Renee Rosen
VHS, color, 50 min.
Sr. High - Adult
African Studies, Women's Studies, Disability Studies

Reviewed by Kayo Denda and Jane Sloan, Rutgers University

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   

Two decades after the identification of HIV, the world has yet to treat or control its chain of transmission, especially in Africa, where 70% of the afflicted reside. AIDS is devastating whole communities by leaving behind families of “old and young,” where aging grandparents and orphans survive in extreme poverty. There are 12.1 million children in Africa who have lost parents to AIDS, and by 2010, it is estimated there will be more than three million AIDS orphans in South Africa alone. In Shouting Silent, the South African Xoliswa Sithole speaks with three families affected by AIDS. The film is also Sithole’s “journey of self discovery,” an intimate examination of her relationship with her own mother who died of AIDS, and her coming to terms with the loss while cherishing her mother’s legacy and memory.

All of Sithole’s travels appear unscripted and spontaneous. She first visits Sis Thenbi, a friend who has not yet disclosed to her four daughters her condition of advanced AIDS. The stigma attached to it for the patients and family members, and an uneasiness to address sexuality issues are reasons for this silence. With Sithole’s urging, Sis Thenbi finally reveals the illness to her daughters. The filmmaker will return at the end of the film to attend her friend at her death.

Next, Sithole visits Tenbisa, an impoverished township outside Johannesburg, where she meets Molouwa, a twelve year old girl and AIDS orphan, who is homeless. The limited adult guidance Molouwa has comes from a local activist and mother, who is herself HIV positive. The filmmaker walks through the grey, maze-like landscape of the corrugated iron shacks of Tenbisa, as she muses on her responsibility for her subjects, and searches for Molouwa along the dusty paths that wind among the shacks.

Finally, Sithole visits the Kuazulu Natal region, where Nokubonga, a seventeen year old mother of a four year old, takes care of eight siblings, including one disabled brother, in a thatched roof hut. After the death of her parents to AIDS, the grandmother’s small pension is the only source of family income. Nokubonga and her sister, both committed to staying home so the younger children might go to school, describe their suffering and void after their mother’s death. The grandmother, who lost two daughters to AIDS, expresses alarm in case she dies and her family loses her pension. The powerfully unsettling narratives that unfold, including a lengthy tale told by the 14 year old upon her return from the city - “I like to wander,” she says - as well as the images of the sick and malnourished children are very disturbing. Contrasted with the artful sound track, and the beautiful, bucolic landscape, this segment communicates a profound sense of despair and tragedy unmediated even by the acts of kindness that occur in the other two locations.

The film is carefully structured, beginning and ending at the cemetery where Sithole’s mother is buried. In between visits to her subjects, where she walks around outside and enters doorways followed by a hand held camera, she speaks to the camera in her home, garbed in elaborate headdress and lit be a soft table lamp. In this way, the stated impetus of the film – to come to terms with the death from AIDS of her mother and bring closure to her personal journey as an orphan – competes at times uncomfortably with what she has discovered on the road. After assessing the lives of these orphans she has determined to investigate, Sithole comes to a strong appreciation of the fact that she lost her mother as an adult, and so benefited from an upbringing under strong maternal guidance. The shame she has experienced – only seven people attended her mother’s funeral – and recounts here, is dissipated by her respectful, but painfully distanced encounters with these children denied the space to dream or do much of anything.

The awareness of her own dream to make films, and the self referential nature of the video’s concept seem at times self indulgent. But the filmmakers grasp in their aesthetics, through images of broken mirrors and angels carved in stone, through Sithole’s reflections on her relation to her subjects, and through her awkwardness in sharing intimate moments, a distinct sense of humility before the discouraging reality of victims helping victims in South Africa. The fact remains that occasional acts of kindness from strangers are insufficient to counterbalance the everyday hunger, pain, humiliation, and loneliness to which these children are subjected.

The insistent presence and expressed motivation of the filmmakers gives great weight to this film as a documentary, and present the opportunity for discussion on what it means to “document” with a camera, on critical methods for narrative, and on the involvement of the filmmaker, as well as the audience, with the subjects. Highly recommended for social science classrooms as well as film studies.


  • Washington DC Independent Film Festival, Grand Jury Prize
  • San Francisco Black Film Festival, 2nd Prize