Life, Above All

2011-03-14 10:56
Life Above All
What it's about:

A family living in a small community loses their newborn daughter to a supposed flu, but the rapid decline in health of the baby's parents prompts rumours of Aids. As the family falls apart under the intense scrutiny of their neighbours, it's up to the eldest daughter Chanda, a bright 12-year-old, to maintain some semblance of sanity while taking care of her two young siblings and her damaged best friend.

What we thought:

Yes, Life, Above All is about Aids – that constant of modern South Africa that speaks of an ongoing national tragedy and evokes a kind of helplessness that’s incredibly difficult for any compassionate human to bear. But this is not just another tragic Aids story - it’s not even hopeful or ambitious enough to say that, in the end, "it’s all going to be OK". It takes a different tact, turning the tables on the viewer and asks of us all, rather directly, how we would respond to a loved one or acquaintance who is being affected by HIV.

Based on Allan Stratton’s bestselling novel Chanda’s Secrets, and the recipient of a 10-minute standing ovation at its Cannes premiere, Life, Above All is directed by South African-born Oliver Schmitz who approaches the story like a curious observer, poking and prodding his subjects until they reveal their true colours. This is an especially effective tool when so much of Life, Above All is about creating an illusion, and discovering how far the little lies we tell ourselves and the people around us can go to providing a sense of security – so comforting and reassuring in spite of the sham.

This is embodied in the character of Mrs Tafa, a neighbour and close friend of Chanda’s severely frail mother Lillian. Mrs Tafa has secrets of her own so is happy to help the family perpetuate the lies that will appease the increasingly inquisitive community members. And what of these excitable neighbours, whose friendliness mutates into frightening mob mentality when the truth is threatening to reveal itself? It’s a scary, scary prospect that this is happening in towns around the country, where appearance and assumption far outweigh truth. This is something Mrs Tafa, played with an infectious spirit by Harriet Lenabe, knows all too well and she sets up an appointment with a sangoma to rid Lillian’s home of 'evil spirits'. It’s this necessary lie that persuades Lillian to leave her home and children behind because her home has 'cursed' her, making her ill and killing her baby. This is how to exile the face of Aids from a community without even acknowledging it.

Life, Above All doesn’t dwell too much on how or why fear of HIV can ignite people to do horrible things to one another, and it is especially galling for an urban, educated audience to make sense of the decisions taken by the misinformed characters that populate this story. Even the word 'Aids' is like a curse no one dares utter, giving the disease so much more power to destroy lives and entrench itself as a dirty secret.

Lillian tells everyone that her baby died of flu. Her own sister believes that Lillian’s disease is God’s punishment. It is only Chanda who is brave enough to visit a clinic to seek help for her frail parents, but even there she can’t bring herself to voice the word that is killing the people she loves. First-time actress Khomotso Manyaka plays the heroic Chanda with a heartbreaking simplicity that never oversteps that fine line between authenticity and over-sentimentality. Her quiet strength and Schmitz’s clear, empathetic narrative propel this universal, almost painfully truthful story to a crushing climax.

That Life, Above All never preaches or admonishes is a blessing. It’s the type of 'issues' movie that can so easily go wrong, usually through an overly earnest script born from a misguided sense of responsibility. Schmitz places the responsibility firmly in the hands of his audience and lets its characters’ response to the reality of Aids speak for itself.

A reflective, beautifully shot South African movie about Aids and its effect on a close-knit community.
Read more on:    south african film  |  aids  |  movies

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