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Non-Review Review: Music by Prudence

The first annual International Disability Film Festival is being hosted from the 20th through to the 23rd October, organised by Arts & Disability Ireland, in Dublin and Galway. I was honoured to be invited to the gala screening of the Oscar-winning HBO documentary Music by Prudence. You can read more information on the festival here.

Music by Prudence is an absolutely fascinating documentary from director Roger Ross Williams, looking at the band Liyana, fronted by Prudence Mabhena. The thirty-three minute documentary does a wonderfully effective job giving us a snapshot into the Zimbabwean band, composed of faculty and students from the King George VI Centre and School for Children with Physical Disabilities. The runtime is remarkably short, but Williams compensates by giving us a whirlwind introduction to the band’s lead singer, who has enough charm and wit to carry a far longer documentary. The band themselves provide a beautiful soundtrack, and there’s talk of them releasing two albums off the back of the film’s success.

It’s fascinating to imagine how difficult it must be to live in a country like Zimbabwe with a physical disability. Prudence herself diplomatically describes living in the country as a “tiring” experience, but we’re offered examples of how much more difficult it must be for those who are disabled. In one section, the documentary explains that a lot of families believe that a disabled child is a “curse” or a product of “witchcraft.” We’re even told that Prudence’s paternal grandmother told her mother not to feed her, so the child might die. It is harrowing stuff, and Prudence herself is candid in explaining it.

The director, Roger Ross Williams, wisely confines this sort exploration to an early segment of the documentary – making sure that the audience is aware of the surrounding circumstances, but refusing them to overwhelm the more uplifting aspects of Prudence’s story. indeed, the best sections of the documentary focus on Prudence herself, who is an incredibly engaging subject – constantly smiling and joking and playful. We also see (and, more importantly, hear)  glimpses of her talent. She’s a phenomenal singer, and the band are remarkably talented.

Prudence herself attended the screening and announced her presence, before she’d even come in the door, with a stirring version of Amazing Grace. It was really something, and she has an undeniable talent. Similarly, there’s a wonderful sense of affection shared between Prudence and her band mates, with Prudence herself serving as something of a den mother – at one point, confiscating a phone off a band mate who is distracted from driving his wheelchair. Thirty minutes is an incredibly brief amount of time to spend with somebody, and it takes considerable effort to give us such a complete sketch in so short a time – the film is remarkably structured and well-handled.

Reportedly, director Roger Ross Williams had creative disagreements with producer Elinor Burkett, with the latter wanted a broader focus for the documentary, focusing on Prudence’s entire band, as opposed to dwelling on the lead singer. I can understand this argument, and the film does feel like there’s a bigger story to tell, with only one other band mate (Marvelous) receiving any background at all. However, there’s also the fact that Williams only has so much time to play with. With a half-an-hour, the director has to keep focus, and Prudence is a subject who lends herself to anchoring the documentary. She’s just a fascinating and interesting individual, which shone through in the post-screening interview. You could make the argument that the film could or should have been extended out, but I think that the approach worked best finished project.

Music be Prudence is a touching little documentary that rarely feels coy or cynical. Prudence explains that most births in Zimbabwe are cause for celebration, and that the only exception is for those children born with disabilities. It feels like Prudence Mabhena finally got her well-earned celebration.

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