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'Life, Above All' brings director Oliver Schmitz back into the limelight

Had all gone according to plan, Life, Above All, the third feature by South African-German director Oliver Schmitz, would have been screened in theatres back in February – a few weeks after the 83rd Academy Awards, in fact, where the low-budget drama was supposed to be (at the very least) one of the five movies up for best foreign-language-film Oscar and (at best) the winner.

Alas, the Gods of Cinema had other ideas. Though blessed as South Africa's official foreign-language entry (the film's dialogue is in Sepedi, one of the country's 11 official languages) and buoyed by ecstatic receptions at festivals in Cannes and Toronto, it was nudged out of consideration by fare from Greece, Denmark, Algeria, Mexico and Canada ( Incendies).

As a result, Life, Above All went into theatres late last week, bereft of any trailing clouds of Oscar glory, in the doldrums of summer -- and (over)shadowed by the all-conquering release of the last Harry Potter. Still, Life, Above All possesses considerable artistic heft. A harrowing, moving drama about a township girl's struggle, in the late 1990s, to keep family and dignity intact in the face of poverty, superstition, ostracism and, most pressingly, disease (in this case the AIDS pandemic), it's a welcome return to feature-filmmaking for Schmitz after a decade-long hiatus. He also co-wrote the screenplay, based on the acclaimed 2004 young-adult novel, Chanda's Secrets, written by Vancouver's Allan Stratton.

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Not that Schmitz, 51, hasn't been busy. Based in Berlin since 2000, he's been "doing a huge amount of work for TV," he explained in an interview, earning "a certain amount of fame" as, of all things, a comedy director. "I've obviously found a niche because," as he correctly noted, "there are not that many good comedy directors in Germany."

A native of Cape Town, Schmitz first left South Africa in 1985 to work as an editor for German public television – and, not coincidentally, avoid being drafted into the South African Defence Force. Two years later, German passport in hand, he was back in his apartheid homeland where, without permission from authorities, he made his first movie, Mapantsula, the tale of a small-time gangster living in Soweto, who gets caught up in the rising anti-apartheid movement. (Banned in South Africa at the time, in 2006 -- 12 years after the country's first multiracial elections -- it was named "best South African film of the decade" at the South African Film and TV Awards.)

Schmitz stayed in South Africa the next few years, quietly making documentaries, living what he calls "a semi-clandestine life" until the early 1990s when conscription ended. More documentaries followed as well as his second feature, Hijack Stories, a German-U.K.-financed action thriller set in a post-apartheid ghetto. By 2000, however, Schmitz felt he wasn't working enough and after "much agonizing," returned to Germany. All through this self-imposed exile, though, he never lost the hankering to do another African project. When Oliver Stoltz, a German-born independent film producer who'd optioned rights to Chanda's Secrets, contacted him about bringing the novel to the screen, Schmitz agreed. Shooting began northeast of Johannesburg in November, 2009.

Schmitz, of course, took liberties with Stratton's text. Like changing the title. It was Chanda's Secrets all the way up to its consideration by the Cannes festival, the director averred, even as he "questioned whether it was a good name for the film because it's not Chanda's secrets, it's the secrets of the community around her." Eventually, a switch was deemed necessary, in part, because the film's French distributor and Cannes liaison thought Chanda's Secrets "sounded too much like the name of a lesbian love story from the 1920s."

The most salient alteration, though, involved making Chanda 12 rather than 16. "For me, a lot of the book was about childhood being interrupted at too young an age by the responsibilities and burdens of life," Schmitz explained. "In South Africa, kids, AIDS or no AIDS, grow up very quickly. To have any chance of a sense of a child who should have every right to still be a child, 16 was impossible . . . So we started to look for kids 12, 13 years old."

It paid off, particularly in the case of Khomotso Manyaka, who, though untried as an actor, never strikes a false note as the desperate but plucky Chanda. Schmitz admitted initially being "very scared to go on this journey with this beautiful child … who'd never been under this pressure that many adults would not cope with, having to be on set every day for 46 days." However, Manyaka possesses "this Zen-like quality about not being fazed by anything," Schmitz observed, and "a natural gift at being able to transform herself into her character without doing much in a big or technical way." Unsurprisingly, Manyaka, now 14, has ambitions to be a professional actor and, along with her equally exceptional co-star Keaobaka Makanyane (she plays a young prostitute), is enrolled in an arts school.

Schmitz, in the meantime, is doing post-production on his fourth feature, "a light-hearted German-language film" titled Russian Disco. Based on a book of short stories of the same name by Wladimer Kaminer, it's about Russian squatters/anarchists who move into flats vacated by East Germans after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Dare one hope it will be that cinematic rara avis, a genuinely funny German comedy?

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

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