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In 'Life, Above All,' Canadians tell the story of AIDS in Africa

A scene from "Life, Above All"

Sony Pictures Classics

It was all that death that gave birth to what would become Life, Above All. Visiting Botswana in 2002 to research Chanda's Secrets, his award-winning book about AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, Toronto-based author Allan Stratton was struck by a visit to a building supply centre that had been turned into a funeral parlour (a more lucrative venture, the proprietor had found). There was a room, Stratton will never forget it, filled floor to ceiling with tiny, foot-deep baby-sized pressboard coffins, spray painted pink or blue, with white plastic sheeting stapled on the inside as a lining.

"When I saw that, that's when I knew that was the scene that had to start the book," says Stratton.

It also informs the opening scene in Life, Above All, the film based on Chanda's Secrets. Directed by South African-born, Berlin-based filmmaker Oliver Schmitz, the film, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year, is in theatres Friday.

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The film, set in a dusty South African village, centres on Chanda (newcomer Khomotso Manyaka), a 12-year-old girl whose mother (Lerato Mvelase) is dying of AIDS, but because of the shame associated with the disease, no one will admit it. As her mother - still mourning the death of her newborn - becomes more ill, Chanda takes over the household, looking after her two young half-siblings and her best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane).

German producer Oliver Stoltz was at Hot Docs in Toronto with his documentary Lost Children in 2005 when Stratton sought his advice on what would become Chanda's Wars, a follow-up to Chanda's Secrets, which deals with the issue of child soldiers in Africa.

The communication ultimately led to Stoltz's interest in adapting Chanda's Secrets. Stratton recommended Vancouver-based screenwriter Dennis Foon. In early 2009, Foon travelled to South Africa with the Olivers, as they came to be known.

Like Stratton, Foon was forever changed by what he saw there. Hours after arriving in Johannesburg, Foon's driver took him to the cemetery in Soweto, where in a short period of time, he witnessed a steady parade of funerals.

"The cemetery in Soweto is gigantic. It dwarfs Arlington. It goes on forever. Just forever," says Foon. "The children's section is vast in itself. And if you can't afford a gravestone, people would just bring belongings of their kids [to mark the graves] So it was a sea of bassinettes, baby cribs and sometimes toys. As a parent, as a human being, it was absolutely devastating to see something like that."

It was during that trip, while visiting Elandsdoorn (about 200 kilometres northeast of Johannesburg), which would become the film's location, that the decision was made to shoot the film not in English, as had been the plan, but in the local language of Sepedi (or Pedi).

Stratton flew to South Africa for part of the shoot in late 2009 - on his own dime. The film's tight budget meant Foon couldn't go.

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Originally a German/South African/Canadian co-production, the film lost its Canadian producer when he was forced to drop out after exhausting Telefilm Canada funding.

But both Canadian writers were there when the film premiered at Cannes in May, 2010.

"We were terrified," Foon said. "Walking in the theatre with a gigantic screen and a thousand people who are seeing this film for the first time and you know that they're the worst snobs in the world. They have two knives in their hands and they're very, very sharp. And you know that the chances are that you're going to end up filleted.

"So we were expecting the worst and there was that pause when the credits roll and I thought 'Great, we're off the hook; at least they're not booing.' And then the theatre was just filled with this incredible thunderous ovation, people cheering and crying."

Stratton says he'd never encountered applause like that before. "We were all in tears and hugging each other and just in awe and it went on and on and on and I had no idea that it went 10 minutes until I read about it in Time magazine."

The personal thumbs-up from Roger Ebert after the screening was an added bonus. And, as it turned out, key to the film's future success. The film had not been on Sony Pictures Classics' radar until Ebert and Time's Richard Corliss and Mary Corliss raved about it over dinner with co-president Michael Barker. "And that's why Sony Classics picked up distribution rights," Foon said. Winning the François Chalais Prize at Cannes - recognizing films that demonstrate the values of life affirmation and journalism - probably helped too.

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The glory of Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival screening which followed last September have stayed with the two Canadian writers, but more than anything, it's all that death - past and looming - that haunts them.

"Something that really stuck with me," says Foon, "was we visited the AIDS hospital [in Elandsdoorn]and in the clinic, there was a woman who was just flesh on bones, incredibly emaciated, and she asked us what we were doing. I said we're going to make a movie about the [AIDS]situation. And she said: 'Tell my story. Tell the world.' I said 'We will.' And we did."

Life, Above All is in theatres in Toronto and Montreal on Friday and in Vancouver on July 22.

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