“On the white line, no one can knock me over,” says a boy panhandling in the midst of oncoming Johannesburg traffic. The scalding Hillbrow Kids is full of acts that mingle recklessness with confrontational self-preservation. Michael Hammon and Jacqueline Gorgen’s 16mm documentary about the street children of Johannesburg etches in blood, dirt, and tears the titular neighborhood that the kids call their own, and—without the aid of a single talking head—the socioeconomic realities of postapartheid South Africa that have propelled them there.
Hillbrow is a mine-ridden playground, where malnutrition, rape, and child prostitution are everyday facts of life, and even glue-sniffing can seem pragmatic. “It’s like this: Sometimes it gets very cold . . . and I like to change my thoughts,” explains young Vusi. At one point he returns to his desolate township, where the unwired, unplumbed shacks built from plywood and corrugated iron somewhat resemble the tarpaulin sheds that Vusi and his friends fashion underground. The filmmakers quietly catalog his visit: His mum bathes him, lays out clean clothes, and casually asks for money for a new TV battery. (The youths who made up part of the massive post-1994 urban migration in South Africa were not just runaways, but also children sent away to the city to hustle cash for their families.)
Vusi’s is not the only childless mother in Hillbrow Kids: Teenaged Jane, first seen nursing her baby on the side of a road, becomes a blank-staring wraith after she loses her son to her boyfriend’s family. The film’s narrator of sorts, Regina Ndlovu, tells four folk tales as allegorical counterpoint to the footage and can occasionally be spotted not far off from the street kids, watching over them like a would-be adoptive parent. This rupture of the documentary format, though miscalculated, doesn’t dilute the power of the footage—which crackles with ferocious energy whenever a boy named Shadrack is on-screen. He understands both the family cycles of poverty and ignorance that apartheid left behind (“They don’t know how to think,” he says bitterly of his unseen parents) and the bedrock of racism that will take generations to erode. As clairvoyantly aware of a world outside his dire circumstances as he is of the near-impossibility of reaching it, Shadrack’s intelligence and force of will seem, in the cruelest irony of this utterly necessary film, like just another source of pain.