Lillian has lost her newborn baby, Sara, and the family are in mourning. But when her eldest child, Chanda, looks for the money to pay for the funeral, she discovers that it’s gone. Her dissolute stepfather Jonah has stolen her mother’s meagre savings and is found, by Chanda, drunk in a local bar. Lillian appears unaware that her baby has died of an AIDS-related illness and that she herself has been infected by her second husband Jonah.
When Jonah reappears, obviously suffering from the final stages of the disease, the villagers’ gossip begins to spread and becomes more vicious. Lillian is forced to seek refuge and travels back north to stay with her disapproving and aloof family, leaving her three children in the care of a neighbour. When Chanda realises the truth, she sets out alone to bring her mother home.
To be HIV positive in South Africa is still considered a curse and local witchdoctors are often the first point of call for those suffering from the illness. Previously, the government colluded with this – the Minister of Health actually promoted lemon juice, beetroot and garlic as a cure. Sufferers were discouraged from taking the anti-retroviral treatments that could save their lives, having been led to believe that the side-effects of the medication were worse than the disease.
Life, Above All, based on the international bestselling novel Chanda’s Secrets (2004) by Allan Stratton, has been skillfully adapted for the screen by Dennis Foon. South African filmmaker Oliver Schmitz (Mapantsula and Paris, je t´aime) treats this sensitive subject and more – rural poverty, ignorance, superstition and teenage prostitution – with compassion and wisdom.
Never overly sentimental, Life, Above All is an intensely disturbing drama about the destructive effects of prejudice. It also highlights how children suffer most from the consequences – an estimated 80,000 AIDS-related orphans are left to fend for themselves with no help from the government or other sources. Chanda, like so many other children in South Africa is forced to take on the responsibilities of an adult at a tender age. Meanwhile, her best friend, Esther, also orphaned and traumatised, chooses the horrific world of child prostitution as a means of survival.
Beautifully shot by Bernhard Jasper, Life, Above All resonates with you long after the final credits roll. The scenes that capture South Africa’s sweeping landscape emphasise the relative isolation of Chanda, while the frequent close-ups expose the characters’ vulnerability, revealing their internal dramas. Manyaka is enormously affecting as Chanda, stubborn, passionate, strong and fragile in equal measure. She is supported by a superb cast.