Oliver Schmitz’s Life, Above All is a very touching human drama. It is deeply effective, sad without being maudlin, heartbreaking without feeling phony, and hopeful for all the right reasons. It is a film from South Africa, about Africans, speaking Sotho (a bantu language spoken in South Africa) rather than simply having all the actors speak English. Most refreshingly, this is a film that focuses on women, African woman, not as women who stand behind men or behind White women. These African women are strong, well-drawn and, like the women of The Color Purple, are allowed to occupy the center of their own story.
Based on the award-winning book “Chanda’s Secret” by Allan Stratton, Life, Above All focuses on 12 year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), who is wise beyond her years and far more mature than the elders that surround her. She and her family live in the small community of Elandsdoorn, a South African village on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Life in the village is quiet, and peaceful despite the political unrest and guerrilla warfare just over the horizon. Chanda stands as the strong center of her family, which is coming apart under the weight of grief over the death of her younger sister. Chanda’s mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) slips into a deep depression and her stepfather Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) chooses to waste himself away in bars and whore houses. Therefore it is left to Chanda to take charge of her mother and two younger siblings.
Chanda’s problems begin when her mother becomes ill. The neighbors immediately assume that the illness is caused by AIDS and grow paranoid and suspicious. This child is caring for a woman who has developed a plague soon after her daughter has died and they think it will destroy them all (it never occurs to them that the sickness may have come from Jonah). A friendly neighbor called Auntie Tafa (Harriet Lenabe) tries to help by urging Lillian to leave. But Chanda is too caring and too stubborn to give in.
Chanda is what makes the film work. Played by first time actor Khmotso Manyaka, she is a force to be reckoned with. She is intelligent, undaunted and never stops asking questions. She has a view of the world that peers under the surface to see the truth that is being hidden. She is bold enough to ask tough questions and keep asking even when the adults would simply pat her on the head and send her in the other direction. There is a brilliant moment deep in the film when she takes her mother to a local doctor and focuses on his degrees hanging on the wall. Based on the framed documents – written in English, which the villagers cannot read – it is clear that this man isn’t a doctor, merely a man who sells herbal placebos.
Chanda is also willing to take chances. She refuses to move her mother out of the village, despite stern warning and is further bold enough to associate with a school friend who has run off to make money in prostitution and returns with AIDS. Chanda doesn’t turn her back on the girl but invites her into the home as a kind of safe haven.
What I like about Life Above All is that it raises a lot of difficult issues about fear and prejudice and does so through the eyes of a girl who is like no young person I have ever met. This isn’t a precocious kid but a wise young girl who will, when she grows up, become a great humanitarian, a politician, a doctor, or an activist.
My only reservation is that I am not sure I was completely sold on the ending in which Chanda is threatened by neighbors in the village who are angry over her decision to take people into her home who have AIDS. Their position is that having these people in their midst will curse the village and bring about their doom. The problem is that the movie allows the scene to develop into a passionate speech about tolerance, and the townspeople are sold on this speech. I don’t believe that such prejudice can be undone simply by a passionate speech. To one or two people, maybe, but not to a mob of thirty. Still, that limitation aside, this is a very good drama, tightly told and with characters that we come to know and care about.