Chanda doesn’t have an easy life. At 12, she has siblings to take care of. Her alcoholic dad has a habit of stealing the family cash and spending it on booze and hookers. Her best friend, Esther, is something of a village outcast, a tweenage girl hanging out at truck stops, supposedly selling herself to drivers.
And Chanda’s mom, Lillian, is sick. She is wasting away. Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) wants to run to the hospital to get help.
“There is no help,” Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) says, turning her eyes away from her child. She won’t say what she has, and nobody there will utter the word “AIDS.” It is “this other thing,” the villagers whisper. Even when a blameless infant dies, this is the illness that can’t be named aloud.
“Life, Above All,” is a sometimes gripping drama about this child who has to grow up too fast, who has to keep her family together and alive, and has come to terms with the stigma that her neighbors place on them. Superstition rules as her father abandons the family as cursed, a witch doctor/fraud is consulted and the locals refuse to even accept AIDS as a disease, living in ignorant denial of a contagion that has spread, prostitute by prostitute, truck stop by truck stop, all across Africa.
South African born German director and co-writer Oliver Schmitz has made a film of immaculate visual compositions, compelling characters and a story arc that takes this village from ignorant superstition to understanding.
The church-going busybody neighbor Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela) hints that she knows the truth. But even as she helps Chanda keep her secret, her judgment seems the harshest of all.
Schmitz has turned Allan Stratton’s novel “Chanda’s Secrets” into a poignant yet unsentimental mother-daughter tragedy, and an indictment of a culture that refuses to acknowledge the disease and thus lags far behind the rest of the world in fighting it. And yet he manages to craft a sympathetic look at a culture he could easily have patronized.
Manyaka anchors the story in a gritty reality, capturing both the girlishness of Chanda — meekly enduring flirting because she couldn’t stand for a boy to find out the family secret — and the adulthood that’s thrust upon her. With her mother ashamed, her father a humiliated drunk who almost certainly brought the disease into their house and her neighbors still living in witch doctor ignorance, Chanda projects the most mature, most adult image in the film.
She refuses to judge Esther, refuses to accept her mother’s death sentence and strains to keep home and family together. Whatever the grownups say, Manyaka’s Chanda is the one person in this village who understands how simple things really are, that it really does come down to “Life, Above All.”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material and some sexual content
Cast: Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane and Lerato Mvelase
Credits: Directed by Oliver Schmitz, co-written by Schmitz and Dennis Foon, based on the Allan Stratton novel, produced by Oliver Stoltz. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:40