Life, Above All (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

Schmitz’s choice to avoid naming the elephant in the room is not just a parlor trick. Instead it’s part of his strategy to place you in Chanda’s world.



The various plot threads in Life, Above All, a searing new film set in a South African village, are connected through a piece of information that director Oliver Schmitz deliberately withholds for about 2/3 of the film’s running time. This poses a problem for the reviewer because 1) it makes it difficult to say much of anything about the film without revealing that information, and 2) almost anyone interested in seeing this film will easily fill in the blanks for themselves.

But I don’t want to spoil the effect for those of you who would rather go in cold, so if you’re in that category my advice is stop reading after this paragraph and avoid reading or hearing anything about the film from other sources as well so you won’t learn this film’s "secret" before Schmitz chooses to reveal it. What I will say is that Life, Above All is a brilliant film that shows you the world through the eyes of Chanda, a 16-year-old village girl who is mature beyond her years. The cinematography and soundtrack are excellent and the film is anchored by two wonderful performances from newcomer Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda and veteran South African actor Harriet Manamela as her neighbor Mrs. Tafa. The screenplay was adapted from the award-winning Young Adult novel Chanda’s Secrets by Allan Stratton and any child mature enough to read the novel should also be able to handle the film.

Schmitz’s choice to avoid naming the elephant in the room is not just a parlor trick. Instead it’s part of his strategy to place you in Chanda’s world by revealing it gradually and letting you put the pieces together. When we first meet Chanda a shopkeeper is asking if her parents are not available—only later do we realize she’s shopping for a coffin for her baby sister because her mother is too ill to do it. Bernard Jasper’s cinematography echoes Schmitz’ method of storytelling by beginning with lots of close-ups and shallow-focus shots and only later opening up to show us more context.

It’s amazing the number of euphemisms the townspeople have to refer to what Chanda’s sister died of, what is making her mother (Lerato Mvelase) ill and her stepfather (Aubrey Poolo) bizarrely thin, and what her orphaned best friend (Keaobaka Makanyane) is risking by selling herself to the truckers who are a primary conduit for the spread of the same disease. Chanda is told to say that her little sister died of influenza while others refer to "the illness" or "that other thing." Of course they’re talking about AIDS, a terrible disease whose power is only strengthened by the refusal to say what it is and how it is spread.

A disease can be dealt with but the villagers would rather condemn anyone unfortunate to be associated with it, declaring the sufferers and their families to be cursed by God and shunning them or driving them out of town (there’s a scene which evokes nothing so much as Shirley Jackson’s "The Lottery"). Of course a few also treat the fear and ignorance surrounding AIDS as an economic opportunity, most notably a "doctor" whose attempt to sell Chanda’s mother an expensive and useless course of vitamins is interrupted when Chanda notices that his "diplomas" are really sales awards from the vitamin manufacturer. This scene establishes one other key point: neither Chanda’s mother nor their neighbor Mrs. Tafa can read, but Chanda can, thanks to opportunities provided to her but not to many women of previous generations. Chanda’s education along with her strong sense of justice and refusal to blindly accept whatever she is told make her a ray of hope for South Africa’s future.

There are so many things I like about Life, Above All that I’m willing to forgive its minor flaws, which include choppy editing by Dirk Grau and a rather abrupt conclusion that warms the heart without convincing the mind. These quibbles are far outweighed by the strengths of a film that tells an African story with African actors (no James McAvoy equivalent required to serve as an audience surrogate), portrays both the positive and negative aspects of village culture, and introduces a brilliant young actor, Khomotso Manyaka, who I’m sure we will be seeing more of in the future. | Sarah Boslaugh


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