“Life, Above All” by South African filmmaker Oliver Schmitz (“Paris, je t’aime”) made the Academy short list as South Africa’s 2010 Oscar entry. The moving coming-of age Aids drama, based on Canadian Allan Stratton’s novel, “Chandra’s Secrets,” received a standing ovation at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
12 year old Chandra, as stubborn and caring a child as anyone could hope to meet, stands up to village superstition, fear and hypocrisy to bring her aids suffering mother home to die with dignity.
You will never forget Chandra, plucky as any heroine from the Golden Age of Hollywood movies, as played by non-pro Khomotso Manyaka.
Good student Chandra’s studies are interrupted by the horrifying tragedies of her Aids-infected family, in a town where the disease is never discussed (if anything it’s called “the bug”) and infected family members are sent away to die in secret to prevent shaming their family and neighborhood.
When sturdy Shandra goes to the coffin maker to choose a coffin for her infant sibling, it’s as matter of fact as any after school errand. Her bed ridden mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) is too sick to move. Her drunken, infected stepfather Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) runs around with a drugged out local whore Dudo (Kgomotso Ditshweni) and only comes home to blame his wife for the death of their child. “You poisoned him with your milk” her screams at the funeral, before meeting his own shameful end.
One of her mother’s relatives, the old pursed Aunt Lizbet (Tinah Mnumzana), comes from their village to represent the family at the infant’s funeral. Staying more than one night is out of the question and the judgmental old biddy, reminiscent of fundamentalist Christians in depression Era Hollywood movies, can’t wait to take the bus back to the bush.
She and Mrs. Tafa tsk tsk Chandra’s best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane) orphaned by Aids, whose practical solution is to hook at the local truck stop. Faithful Chandra takes her scorned, abandoned friend in, despite the gossips.
Busybody neighbor Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Lenabe aka Harriet Manamela-“Hotel Rwanda”), Lilian’s best friend, tries to fix her first with a witch doctor, then with herbal concoctions from a local wonder working doctor (the Christianized African answer to the witch doctor). Savvy, literate Chandra read his impressive supposed diplomas (actually multi-level marketing sales awards, and blackmails the greedy “doctor” into giving her mother the overpriced concoctions. Better to give away one person’s medicines than loose his lucrative local franchise.
Schmitz, the son of German immigrants, raised in Cape Town, saw international sales with his gangster drama “Mapantsula,” though this handsome film is more mature, accomplished and humanistic than the gangster pic. Set in the harsh parched countryside, scored with a mix of South African hymns and traditional music the humanist drama does everything right? Schmitz’s hopeful coming of age story keeps you watching as the bleak circumstances unfold. Bernhard Jasper’s cinematography and Dirk Grau’s edit create a tawny impressionist memory play that takes the edge off the stark drama.
Bernhard Jasper’s cinematography and Dirk Grau’s edit create a tawny impressionist memory play that takes the edge off the stark drama.