Music by Prudence
Documentary, 2010, USA/Zimbabwe, 32:30 minutes, original version in English, subtitled in English.
Music by Prudence, a film by Roger Ross Williams, has received an Award of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Oscar) in the category of “Documentary: Short Subject” in 2010. Produced by iThemba Productions and Elinor Burkett, the 33-minute documentary stars Prudence Mabhena, a talented young woman from Zimbabwe suffering from arthrogryphosis, a rare disorder that severely deforms the joints of the body. Prudence, who sings in five languages, is sharing her astounding talent with the world.
Prudence lives in Zimbabwe, and for a long time almost no one knew about that hauntingly beautiful voice. No one knew the strong, resilient woman that owned it. When Prudence was born, her paternal grandmother wanted her dead. In Zimbabwe disabled children are sometimes believed to be the result of witchcraft. In extreme cases families kill them - to remove the “curse” from their family.
Prudence’s mother kept her and fed her. Cast out of her husband’s (Prudence’s father’s) home, she brought the baby to her own mother’s rural home. Prudence maternal grandmother took care of the child and taught her to sing. A working farmer, she would strap the little girl to her back as she worked the fields. But when Prudence turned 7, she knew she couldn’t school her. So she sent her to live with her father and his new family.
There, Prudence fell prey to neglect and isolation. Her stepmother refused to touch her, and called her a worthless, helpless “ant.” For two years, Prudence lived like an animal - crawling on the floor and sleeping in her own urine, and worse. Every day, she dragged herself to a mango tree in the backyard and told herself that her nightmare will end someday. She was despondent enough to attempt suicide - twice.
Bulawayo provides the film’s colorful backdrop. Like the rest of the country, Zimbabwe’s second largest city is largely dysfunctional. Water stoppages and electrical blackouts are daily events. The supermarkets have no food, so residents are forced to use the black market for necessities. Inflation and crime run rampant.
Music by Prudence traces the path of this little girl and her remarkable transcendence from a world of hatred and superstition into one of music, love and possibility.
The movie’s final scene is a concert by Liyana. The crowd applauds and whistles, then the screen darkens, leaving only Prudence’s lustrous, smiling face. Recalling the opening sequence, her face is in perfect symmetry to the African sky, rushing and streaming towards hope.
Roger Ross Williams, director-producer
Roger Ross Williams is a television news, documentary and entertainment producer, director and writer who has lived and worked in New York City for the past 25 years. He has worked for ABC News, NBC News, MSNBC, BBC, CNN and PBS.
Williams has produced entertainment shows for ABC, CBS, Comedy Central, Food Network, Sundance Channel, TLC, VH1 and Michael Moore’s Emmy Award winning series TV Nation. He has directed prime-time reality shows for ABC and CBS and produced a documentary series for Discovery and a lifestyle series for Scripts Networks. He has won numerous awards including a NAMIC Vision Award for his television special Moroccan Style and the National Headliner for Best Human Interest Feature for his documentary New York Underground.
Of Music by Prudence, he says: “You quickly forget that Prudence is disabled because she’s such an amazing, dynamic person … charismatic and brilliant and engaging. Africa’s a beautiful place. Africans are such beautiful people and so close to the earth. Where Prudence comes from - near Victoria Falls - is breathtaking. I spent a lot of time [at Prudence’s grandmother’s rural home], sleeping in a hut. There’s no water. There’s no electricity. I had literally gone back to my roots. I loved every minute of being there - sitting by the fire, singing songs. It was a spiritually enlightening experience. It was easy to capture that.”
After the film was finished, Prudence told Roger, “I want you to win an Oscar!” When they were nominated, he called Prudence, who was shocked and overwhelmed. “It’s unimaginable,” he said, “that a girl left in a hut to die is now celebrated in the world for her talent. I hope everyone gets to see this movie and to know her the way that I do.”