Life, Above All reveals the AIDS crisis in South Africa through the eyes of a little girl. Khomotso Manyaka stars as Chanda in this moving, redemptive drama. Oliver Schmitz, a white native of South Africa, directs.
Chanda takes responsibility when her baby sister dies and her mother falls ill. Life, Above All is now streaming at Amazon and available at Netflix. Dennis Foon and director Schmitz wrote the screenplay adapted from the young adult novel Chanda’s Secrets.
Journey to reclaim a mother
The film opens as Chanda chooses a coffin for baby Sara. The 12-year-old drops out of school to care for young siblings as her mom Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) grows weaker. A drunken stepfather Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) shows up erratically to steal from his wife and blame her for his fate.
Chanda remains dignified and determined. “You amaze me,” Lillian tells her daughter. After a witch doctor’s visit, Lillian exiles herself from the community. Chanda begins a heroic journey to find and reclaim her.
Manyaka’s acting debut is powerful. Stoic but holding onto compassion, she reminds me Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone.
Every performance feels true and pure. Harriet Manamela plays Mrs. Tafa, the lively gossip who takes a stand when an angry crowd surrounds her neighbor’s home. First she must face her own shame and denial. The matriarch’s change of heart might even transform a few townspeople.
Chanda stands by her best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), an AIDS orphan shunned by the village. Makanyane superbly conveys a little girl forced into adulthood. Desperate Esther experiments with prostitution. Staying behind, she makes Chanda’s journey possible.
Manyaka, Makanyane and many in the cast are non-actors.
Dying for healthcare
South Africa has one of the highest HIV-AIDS infection rates in the world. According to a 2010 UNICEF report, nearly half of South Africa’s three million orphans lost their parents to HIV-AIDS related disease. It is the country’s leading cause of death in children and women.
Schmitz does not delve into politics. His keen focus on personal heroism and resilience engages viewers to take action.
International acclaim for Life, Above All
Shot outside Johannesburg, Life, Above All was shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. It was featured at the following festivals: Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, Ebertfest and Human Rights Watch.
Cinematographer Bernhard Jasper films in HD to portray life and death. He uses golden light to illumine these moments objectively. African choral singing, with music by Ali N. Askin and Ian Osrin, adds depth and beauty.
This film achieves a powerful moment of personal and social transformation. As Chanda looks on, fear turns into love.
Life, Above All / 2010 / PG-13 / 1 hour, 40 min
Cast Overview: Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane, Harriet Manamela, Lerato Mvelase, Aubrey Poolo, Mandla Ernest Mokoena
Director: Oliver Schmitz
Language: Pedi with English subtitles