Little Heaven

Lieven Corthouts


a documentary film by Lieven Corthouts. In coproduction with Lichtpunt, with support from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund, the Belgian Development Cooperation. Distributed by Taskovski Films

developped at ESODOC 2010 and the Berlinale Talent Campus 2011

Right In the heart of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa is a small orphanage called 'Little Heaven'. One of the orphans, Lydia, is 13 today.  A truly joyful event, because she can now move to the ‘other house‘ where all of the ‘big kids’ live.  Unfortunately this special day is  overshadowed by the shocking news delivered to her by the head nurse: Lydia is HIV positive.

The children living in the Ethiopian orphanage 'Little Heaven' are told that they have HIV on the day of their 13th birthday.
For the main character Lydia, this is without a doubt one of the most emotional events in her life, and with difficulty she can now understand why she is an orphan, and why she is so often ill and in hospital. More significantly she can now understand why the husband of her sister Betty didn’t want to have Lydia in their home any longer.
In spite of this sad news, Lydia has no intention of sitting at home being depressed. She wants to live, and to dream. This is why as soon as she arrives into the room of the new orphanage, she hangs her motto above her bed: “I want to be happy every day”.

The other children in the new orphanage do all they can to support Lydia. At first glance, they look like any normal group of young children: they go to school, they play together in the courtyard of the orphanage, and they have fun laughing on their bunk beds.
The children in the orphanage live as independently as they can. Apart from taking their daily dose of medication they try as much as possible to exclude the burden of illness from their daily lives. However, Lydia suffers quite a lot with her own health and is continually confronted with her illness during frequent hospital visits.  "I sometimes feel like a chemist shop with all the medication I have to take,” she sighs. Lydia’s illness also prevents her from doing what she absolutely adores the most but no longer has the strength for, which is dancing.
The children in the orphanage receive news that the students with the best results can go to a better school in the coming year.  This news encourages Lydia to persevere with her illness, and towards her dream to become a teacher later on in life, and she is now more determined than ever before to make this dream come true.  

The director, Lieven Corthouts, lived in the Little Heaven orphanage for two years and placed Lydia’s story at the heart of this documentary. The director follows Lydia, the main character with HIV in the lead-up to an important school exam. Will Lydia’s marks be high enough for her to get into a better school and create a light at the end of this tunnel of struggle and set-backs?
Lydia reveals to viewers how her life vacillates between hope and despair through fragments from her diary.  
Little Heaven is a hard and confrontational story that never gives in to a sense of desperation thanks to the energy and vitality of the children and their caretakers in the orphanage.


directed & filmed by Lieven Corthouts
edited by Jan De Coster
sound design & mix Nils Fauth
commissioning editor Lichtpunt Wim Van Rompaey


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.  
The influences of gypsy flamA kind of making of...


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