Little Heaven

Lieven Corthouts


een documentaire film van Lieven Corthouts. In coproductie met Lichtpunt. Met steun van het Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds en de Belgische Ontwikkelingssamenwerking (DGOS)

ontwikkeld op ESODOC 2010 en de Berlinale Talent Campus 2011

Te midden van de helse drukte van de Ethiopische hoofdstad Addis Abeba, staat een klein weeshuis met de naam “Little Heaven”. Lydia, één van de weeskinderen, wordt vandaag 13 jaar. Een vrolijke gebeurtenis, want ze mag op deze leeftijd verhuizen naar het andere huis waar in hoofdzaak 'grote' kinderen (teenagers) verblijven. Deze heuglijke dag wordt echter overschaduwd door het schokkende nieuws dat Lydia met HIV besmet is.

De kinderen die worden opgevangen  in het Ethiopische weeshuis “Little Heaven” krijgen op hun dertiende jaar te horen dat ze hiv hebben.
Voor het hoofdpersonage Lydia is dit ongetwijfeld één van de meest emotionele gebeurtenissen van haar leven. Nu begrijpt ze opeens waarom ze een weeskind  is, waarom ze zo vaak ziek is en naar het ziekenhuis moet, waarom de man van haar zus Betty haar niet langer in huis wou,…
Ondanks dit schrijnend nieuws wil Lydia niet bij de pakken blijven zitten. Ze wil leven en kunnen dromen. Daarom hangt ze meteen bij aankomst in het nieuwe huis haar levensmotto boven haar bed: “I want to be happy every day”.

De andere kinderen in het nieuwe weeshuis doen er alles aan om Lydia te ondersteunen. Bij vlagen lijkt het een gewone groep van jonge kinderen: ze gaan naar school, ze ravotten op de binnenplaats van het weeshuis en ze maken plezier op hun stapelbedden.
De kinderen wonen zelfstandig in het weeshuis. Buiten het nemen van hun dagelijkse portie medicijnen, proberen ze hun ziekte zo ver mogelijk uit hun dagelijkse leven te houden. Toch sukkelt Lydia vaak met haar gezondheid en wordt ze tijdens haar vele ziekenhuisbezoeken weer geconfronteerd met haar ziekte. "Soms voel ik me net een apotheek met al die medicijnen die ik moet slikken", verzucht ze. Vanwege haar ziekte kan Lydia ook niet meer dansen, terwijl ze daar zo van houdt.
Het goede nieuws dat de beste leerlingen volgend jaar naar een betere school mogen, doet Lydia volharden. Het is haar grote droom om later professor te worden en ze is meer dan ooit vastberaden om die droom waar te maken.

Regisseur Lieven Corthouts woonde 2 jaar in het weeshuis “Little Heaven” en gaf het verhaal van Lydia een centraal plaats in deze documentaire. De regisseur volgt het met HIV besmette hoofdpersonage Lydia in de aanloop van een belangrijk schoolexamen. Zullen Lydia's cijfers hoog genoeg zijn om toegang te krijgen tot een betere school en  dus voor haar een nieuw lichtpunt zijn in haar moeilijk bestaan?
Via dagboekfragmenten laat Lydia de kijker  toe in haar leven dat pendelt tussen hoop en wanhoop.
Little Heaven is een hard en confronterend verhaal dat dankzij de energie en vitaliteit van de kinderen en hun begeleiders nooit uitzichtloos wordt.

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.
Another African story, this positively touching documentary follows a 13-year-old Ethiopian girl who has just learned that she was born with HIV and will be moving to a new orphanage (the Little Heaven of the title) for kids her age similarly afflicted with the disease. Anchoring the narrative on young Lydia’s diary, read by the subject as voiceover narration, director Lieven Corthouts keeps the film incredibly upbeat, appropriately paying mind to the girl’s mantra of trying to be happy every day.

With its jazzy soundtrack, rhythmic montages and occasional inclusion of Lydia’s dance moves, Little Heaven reminds me of the recent dreamy musical-tinged documentary Bombay Beach. Yet it’s not so much a fantastical approach to the would-be sorrowful subject matter as it is an inspiring look at a smart, compassionate and courageous kid whose uncanny spirit keeps her going in spite of her misfortune.

The Upcoming
Aware of the manipulation a skilfully edited documentary can have upon an audience, Little Heaven initially caused concern in the nimble reveal of its subject matter: HIV positive children living in an orphanage in Ethiopia.
It instantly churns worry and strife in stomachs; the delicate ground being covered could so very easily slide into an avalanche of mawkish, condescending and idiotic sentimentality. It was with much relief that a short way into Lieven Corthouts’ documentary, it became evident that the film was thankfully by far greater than those incendiary components.
Lydia is told on her thirteenth birthday she was born, as all the other children in the orphanage, hosting the HIV virus. Bursting into tears, the crash landing into the reality of this conversation shakes Lydia, but although instantly served to swallow, it isn’t dwelt upon, coming across as more of an empathetic bridge that she (and the audience) must cross. Lydia, now a teenager, is presented with the possibility of a future in which she has to carve out new friendships, study hard and learn to comprehend her illness – All to create a future for herself.
There is a clear through line in Little Heaven; the intentional humanising of the children along with the functional aspects of spreading the word about the availability of medicine, are shown with an honest transparency, both of which are matched by the director’s commitment and vision to his film. Corthouts spent a number of years with the children, building relationships and gaining trust. As a result, the footage captured in the orphanage is as relaxed and natural as it could be, although it appears occasionally a touch too fluid, raising a questioning eyebrow to possibilities of scripting. Yet further contemplation of this becomes overturned through the very smart editing and shuffling of narratives, which maybe work against the film a touch, making it feel a little too slick at points.
The satisfaction of watching a documentary about such moribund topics being dealt with in such a positive fashion, felt like an invigorating and fresh trajectory. There isn’t a bombardment of bleak images here, rather a humane depiction of the children and their growing pains, both common and unique, which amass into an uplifting and spirited film – Highly recommended.
Verdict: ••••


Lieven Corthouts
Date of Birth: 15/01/1975

Script, camera, editing


Documentary on Apiculture in Bure (Amhara), Ethiopia  
Web films (15) for the Gene Bank and Forest Diversity in Addis Ababa  
Documentary about Fodder in Debre Zeit (Oromo), Ethiopia  
Documentary film ‘My Future’  

Funded by Flemish Film Fund and the Belgian Development Cooperation 
Reportage film ‘A long distance dream’  

Broadcasted by VRT (Belgium), ZDF (Germany) and the Swiss television

‘The Curo show’, a Belgian rock band is recording a disk in Andalusia, Spain.  
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Awards / Festivals

World premiere at IDFA (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam) Netherlands, 2011
Special mention at Docville, Leuven, Belgium, 2012
Official selection Movies That Matter, Den haag, Netherlands, 2012
Official selection Opendoek festival, Turnhout, Belgium, 2012
Official selection Planete +Doc Film Festival, Warsaw & Wroclav, Poland, 2012
Official selection Human Rights Watch Film Festival, London (UK) & New York (USA), 2012
Official selection Addis Film Festival, Ethiopia, 2012
Official selection Seoul Human Rights Film Festival, South-Korea, 2012
Official selection L´Alternativa Festival de Cinema Independent de Barcelona, Spain, 2012
Official selection Filmfestival Oostende, Belgium, 2012
Official selection Anthropological Film Festival, Tel Aviv, 2012
Official selection Festroia International Film Festival, Spain, 2012
Official selection Anûû-rû âboro, New Zeeland, 2012
Official selection Millenium Festival, Brussels, Belgium, 2013
Official selection Faito Doc Festival, Monte Faito, Italy, 2014
Official selection Sole Luna Festival, Treviso, Italy, 2014

distributed in Belgium during the Vlaamse Documentaireweken
distributed in the
US and Canada by Human Right Watch. Developed at the Berlinale
Talent Campus, Esodoc and Documentary in Europe.

Supported by the Bertha BRITDOC Connect Fund for distribution in Ethiopia