The story of a school girl in contemporary South Africa fighting to keep her AIDS-stricken family together, Life, Above All walks a line between didactic allegory and realistic drama. Showcased at the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, and offered as South Africa's entry for the Academy Awards, it's an unimpeachably worthy drama of very few surprises.
Based on Toronto writer Allan Stratton's 2004 young-adult novel Chanda's Secret, the film is at its best when capturing a South African small-town milieu and in showcasing the performance of a young actress, Khomotso Manyaka, as a bright 12-year-old whose loyalty and skepticism run afoul of the local culture of superstition and shame around the AIDS pandemic. To emphasize what a taboo it is, the word "AIDS" isn't even mentioned by any character until two-thirds of the way through the film.
Adapted by Vancouver's Dennis Foon, and directed by German-South African director Oliver Schmitz, the film plunges us directly into the vortex as 12-year-old Chanda visits a South African funeral home to select a cardboard coffin for her baby sister. After that, things get tougher: There's no money for the casket. Chanda's mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) is wasting away with illness. The girl's stepfather, Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) and father of Chanda's two half-sisters, spends his money on prostitutes and booze. What's more, her best friend, Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), though still a child, is drifting into prostitution. The incidents remind us, as they're intended to, that Chanda is one among many children suffering from similar battles, but the gauntlet of episodes begin to feel like items on a social-issue checklist: Infant death, AIDS orphans, child prostitution, alcoholism.
That's not to say that Life, Above All is devoid of nuance. Newcomer Manyaka, who as Chanda carries the family's burdens on her slender shoulders, is compelling – she always seems to be leaning forward, ready to walk head first into her next battle. The handheld cinematography and muted lighting gives a sense of you-are-there immediacy to the simple, functional buildings of the town. (The only scene of outright squalor is a scene of a prostitute's hovel near a truck stop.) As Chanda's predicament grows more difficult, the lighting emphasizes the interior scenes as more prison-like, while the overbright outer world is a place of exposure.
The most dynamic relationship in the film is that between the small, quiet Chanda and her noisy powerhouse neighbour, Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela, of Hotel Rwanda). Mrs. Tafa is a woman who, for personal reasons, is determined to close the door on any talk of AIDS, but still wants to help Chanda and her family. As Lillian's health deteriorates, Mrs. Tafa arranges for a spiritualist to visit the house. Still sounding upbeat, she next takes Lillian to visit a quack herbalist.
When it becomes obvious that Lillian's health will never improve, Mrs. Tafa arranges to have her neighbour shipped out of town to rural relatives, so she won't shame her friends and family. But Chanda, refusing to let her mother disappear into oblivion, decides to go after her. It's at the point where Chanda wanders into an unknown rural territory when the film momentarily flickers to life, with a hair-raising tingle of intrigue. Too soon, it slides back onto the predictable track toward a culminating redemption, which, even as allegory, just barely makes sense.
Life, Above All
- Directed by Oliver Schmitz
- Written by Dennis Foon
- Starring Khomotso Manyaka and Harriet Manamela
- Classification: PG