Children of the Light: Tutu Film Premiere

By Sylvia Vollenhoven

I had mixed feelings watching the premiere of the film Children of the Light, Dawn Gifford Engle’s 90-minute documentary on the life and global impact of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The archive footage of our recent past had me reliving briefly some of the sadness of the 70’s and 80’s. But it was sorrow tinged with triumph. So while the film is a reminder of where we were just three decades ago, it is a celebration of a South African leader who guided our nation away from the edge towards democracy.

Engle is a co-founder of the PeaceJam Foundation, an American NGO that works with Nobel Laureates to inspire young people around the world to become the peacemakers and community activists of the future. The Foundation’s programme was launched in February 1996 by Engle and Ivan Suvanjieff to provide the Laureates with a vehicle to use for working together to teach youth the art of peace.

Their film is a powerful reminder of the huge debt of gratitude we owe Archbishop Tutu. We know how tirelessly he has worked to oppose injustice. When he speaks (and here I borrow from his idiom loosely) we square our shoulders, stand a bit straighter and definitely walk a whole lot taller. But like a beloved parent, we take him for granted. I would recommend that every South African watches Children of the Light and then goes down on their knees to thank the god of their choice for the gift that is Tutu.

The Goodwood Stadium eucharist for the enthronement of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in September 1986.

The Goodwood Stadium eucharist for the enthronement of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in September 1986.

The premiere of Children of the Light was timed to coincide with the 28th anniversary of Tutu’s enthronement as the Anglican Archbishop in St George’s Cathedral in September 1986.

This feature length documentary is an ambitious project. It takes us from Tutu’s early life as a young man shaking his world and being given a scholarship to study at King’s College in London, through his rise to the top job in South Africa’s Anglican Church and eventually to his impact on the nation’s of the world. Seeing the Archbishop’s life on this very broad canvas was humbling. My only gripe was with the production values of the film but when I looked around me and saw how much everyone was overflowing with joy and praise afterward, I kept my niggling professional observations to myself.

Instead I went home and rummaged through my own Tutu memorabilia. Many hours later when I had to force myself to stop poring over the Tutu photographs, notebooks and correspondence, what actually bothered me most about Children of the Light came to me in a flash. It is embarrassing that neither I nor any of my colleagues in the media have come up with the quintessential Desmond Tutu film yet. Two decades after democracy and yet again a foreign entity has collected the vast archive of Tutu’s life and put it on the big screen. Somewhere in my past I recall a minor documentary locally made but nothing close to the scale of Dawn Gifford Engle’s film.

So while we scurry around trying to right that wrong. Here are a few items in my archive that stand out for me as defining Tutu moments.

As Archbishop Elect in June 1986, persuading riot policeman Captain Johan Oosthuizen to allow  him to visit the embattled Crossroads.

As Archbishop Elect in June 1986, persuading riot policeman Captain Johan Oosthuizen to allow him to visit the embattled Crossroads.

As the Archbishop Elect in 1986 Tutu was like a human shield, constantly confronting apartheid police and soldiers to prevent even more bloodshed. Here he confronts a roadblock in Crossroads to persuade heavily armed police that they should allow peace talks in the embattled community.

Soon after his enthronement as Archbishop in September 1986 Tutu landed at the official residence in Bishop’s Court with a bang. First he offended the apartheid authorities because he refused to apply for a permit under the Group Areas Act, to enable him to live in a white area. Then he enraged conservative white neighbours by inviting homeless children from the Khayamnandi Shelter to swim in his pool. Mrs Leah Tutu was one of the first to dive in and join the kids.


In 1987, a year after his enthronement and a time when Mozambique was engulfed in the war between Frelimo and the rebels of Renamo, he braved the troubled countryside of the Gaza Province to visit deep rural Anglican communities. A contingent of armed soldiers – some with rocket launchers – had to protect him wherever he went. I’ve never been so terrified while sitting through a church service ever.



Sylvia Vollenhoven

A writer, award-winning journalist, playwright and filmmaker. In 2019 appointed the University of Johannesburg’s first ever Professor of Practice. Commissioned by the Volksoperahuis of Amsterdam to write Krotoa Eva van de Kaap, a play that premiered in the Netherlands to standing ovations before touring South Africa. Her seminal dance drama about Khoisan identity, The Keeper […]


Four Decades on the Frontline

Global Icon Desmond Tutu has been at the frontline of truth, peace and justice for almost four decades. The South African premiere of the first-ever documentary on his life and contribution to democracy was screened this weekend. Daily Maverick writer Marianne Thamm reviews the film and pays tribute to the man.

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