Life, Above All (2010) – which has been compared to 2009’s Precious – enjoyed a warm reception on the festival circuit and was met with a ten minute standing ovation on its debut at the Cannes Film Festival. In the context of the horrifying AIDS epidemic, South African director Oliver Schmitz explores the power of love and loyalty in the face of adversity.
Set in a township outside of Johannesburg, the film centres on 12-year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), who is well-known in her small community for all the wrong reasons, though none are through fault of her own. Her mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) is ill, grief-stricken for the loss of her baby daughter (for which we see Chanda select a coffin in the opening scene) and unable to look after Chanda and her little brother and sister, Soly and Iris.
Chanda’s father is deceased and in his place loiters Jonah (Aubrey Poolo), father to Soly and Iris and a drunken waste of space, who likes to help himself to Lillian’s savings and disappear for months. The town is rife with rumour and whispers of disease, which are not helped by Chanda’s friendship with Esther (Kaeobaka Makanyane), an orphaned child prostitute who lives in basic squalor and has no one to protect her. A child in such need should evoke empathy in the township, but Esther is ostracised and Chanda berated for the association.
Based on the novel Chanda’s Secrets by Canadian author Allan Stratton, screenwriter Dennis Foon had the difficult task of maintaining an engaging narrative throughout the multitude of harrowing issues, but manages to weave a tender story between the devastating events. Chanda’s stoicism is key to Life, Above All’s impact on the audience, and the film mercifully avoids battering the audience with melancholic sentimentality. On a rare occasion when Chanda’s barriers do come down, the impact is far greater and we see her for who she should be – a child.
Life, Above All is not an easy watch and offers little relief between one set-back to another, which often diffuses the gravity of a singular problem and confuses the message of the movie. Schmitz uses children to reminds us of its meaning, (how AIDS is misunderstood, hysteria-inducing and handled poorly in communities where hospitals are desperately underfunded), with a simple embrace between Chanda and Esther when others refuse to go near them.
Life, Above All boasts moving music and impressive central performances but unfortunately is a little too reductive of South African culture; superstition and shamanism are not as prevalent as the film suggests. Chanda’s stubborn spirit prevails however, and ensures the film doesn’t wander far into cliched territory, with an immensely impressive screen debut from young Manyaka.