A Matter of Tusk: Cloete has earned the esteem of an AIDS-stricken community.

There’s a reason why Louise Hogarth’s impassioned new documentary is titled Angels in the Dust, but only the resolutely optimistic will spy any celestial creatures in it. It’s a tale of raw humanity, revealing extremes of both altruism and malignancy. Though the movie is set in a South African orphanage, it opens in a wildlife refuge, where poachers shoot elephants from helicopters. The plight of orphaned elephants is worth an outraged documentary in itself, but here it’s used merely as a metaphor: In areas where adolescent elephants live without supervision, they become unruly and destructive. In some cases, park rangers have imported mature elephants to teach proper behavior, with impressive results.

This is an analogy Hogarth can take only so far, though. The heroes of her film are the members of the Cloete family, a formerly wealthy Johannesburg clan that moved to the bush 20 years ago to care for orphans, mostly the offspring of people with AIDS. Marion Cloete, clearly the family’s dynamo, and her husband and twin daughters are the adult elephants, attempting to restore their community. Few of the film’s other grownups, however, are benevolent. Whether seen on camera or merely discussed, the local parents engage in or consent to a culture of children’s exploitation. Men rape little girls, and mothers sell their daughters because of the insidious local myth that sex with a virgin cures AIDS.

Hogarth, whose 2003 documentary, The Gift, was about gay men who seek HIV infection, spent enough time with Marion, Con, Leigh, and Nicole Cloete to understand their work and to sketch reasonable likenesses of some of their charges. Maki, who was forced into prostitution, is enrolled briefly in the Cloetes’ school, only to be withdrawn by her mother, Virginia, whose recovery demonstrates the efficacy of anti-HIV drugs. Lillian’s mother won’t allow her to take an HIV test and threatens to poison her. Marion tries to save one man, Thabo, from the disease even though he is, in her words, an “HIV serial killer.” She’s well enough acquainted with Thabo’s sexual history to draw a chart of his contacts on a blackboard.

Aside from the work the Cloetes do, this intimacy with people is the most remarkable thing about them. Of course, the family is dealing mostly with children, who tend to be less guarded. Still, Marion’s deep understanding of the compound’s nearly 600 inhabitants establishes that she’s abolished the usual barriers between rich and poor, black and white, native and colonist. Eminently practical, Marion doesn’t waste time bemoaning the local customs that oppress women and girls. The Cloetes join a protest against Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the South African health minister who encouraged AIDS patients to use worthless folk remedies. But Marion is more likely to be found at the local mortuary, making deals to ransom the corpses of impoverished men, because their wives are not allowed to leave their houses until the burial is accomplished.

Marion is also—and here’s where the angels come in—a trained therapist. She leads kids in scream therapy and instructs them to visualize their angels. This seems a dubiously abstract response to a direct physical and emotional threat. But after watching Hogarth’s documentary, even skeptics will likely acquiesce to Marion’s psycho-theology. Guardian-angel therapy may not be helpful, but so much else that the Cloetes do is. As moving as it is horrifying, Angels in the Dust is a profound lesson in compassion.