Life, Above All, opening in limited release, is the sort of film that will garner lots of muted praise but few enthusiastic endorsements. Set outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, it focuses on Chanda, a twelve-year-old girl with an adult world of pain and responsibility on her shoulders.

As the film opens, Chanda is making funeral arrangements for an infant sister. Her mother says the money to pay for the funeral has been stolen, but Chanda knows that it was taken by her stepfather for alcohol, or possibly drugs. She borrows the phone in a friend's house to inform relatives of the pending funeral, stands up to the drunken stepfather to get the money, and tries to understand the cryptic messages that friends and neighbors give her that imply some terrible disgrace at the core of her family tragedy.

Briefly—for perhaps the first ten to fifteen minutes—it looks like the film might be a South African Winter's Bone, bringing the environmental forces into starker relief by showing how they thrust adulthood upon those not yet physically matured and how that youngster grows to meet that challenge. Having established the horrific situation and the innocent protagonist, however, the film does not really have any place to go, and it stalls through most of its middle section. While there is an educational value for those who might be unaware of the extent that superstition and patriarchy continue to play in the spread of AIDS in Africa—Chanda is cautioned by one adult against even saying the word—the film goes for sympathy rather than empathy.

Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda

Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda

That it elicits that sympathy is laudable, but the ease with which it can press buttons is also a hindrance to any sort of development. Deciding that superstition and prejudice are bad, Chanda stands up to the adults in her village and sets off to find her mother, who has left to die alone rather than face the misguided animosity and fear of her village. The pervasive, insistent messages that shaming innocents is wrong, that gossip and superstition are hurtful and destructive social forces, are aptly shown. But for whose benefit? Will anyone go into the film thinking these are good things and thus be challenged or provoked by it? There is a veneer of newness or originality for the Western viewer in that the manifestations of these behaviors may be strange or alien to them, but the film has difficulty parlaying those cultural difference into a deeper understanding of the attitudes or behaviors it condemns.

African-American author Richard Wright once opined that when he wrote about the conditions that afflicted a people, he wanted to pen something that was so hard it did not allow the "consolation of tears." If I have a reservation about Life, Above All, it is that I can't help but think it will leave most viewers pretty much where they started. Will a Western churchgoer see himself or herself in the gossipy neighbors who call Chanda's mother a "Jezebel" and claim AIDS is God's punishment so its victims must have done something wrong? Or is the point to console the viewer by allowing him to feel better about himself because he feels bad for those (sufficiently far away) who suffer unjustly?

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Chanda and Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela)

Chanda and Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela)

From a technical standpoint, the film is professionally produced and well made. Khomotso Manyaka's performance as Chanda has been rightly praised. It has none of the tricks of the trade that allow professional child actors to play the innocent victim, and, thus, it gives Chanda an earnest, innocent quality. The bond between a mother and a daughter is a noble theme, but even this is presented somewhat abstractly. Darrell Roodt's Yesterday did a more compelling job of fleshing out the characters of both mother and daughter, giving a very similar story more poignancy. Director Oliver Schmitz (perhaps best known to American audiences for a vignette in Paris J'Taime) is able to frame shots with an eye toward reinforcing his themes visually without flagrantly drawing attention to individual shots the way many more commercial dramatic films do. We may notice the design on a child's shirt as it hangs on a clothesline, but the camera does not insist that we do. With material this heavy handed, a light directorial touch is a must.

Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) hugs her daughter

Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) hugs her daughter

There are at least two religious services shown in the film. The funeral of Chanda's sister is a shown as primarily a religious ceremony, and the women of the village are shown briefly in a worship service. For the most part, though, faith as a force to transform lives or even as a source of comfort is absent. The most religiously informed characters are the most hypocritical, with proof texting substituting for any genuine attempts at explaining one's situation in reference to a larger belief system. It is almost as though the language of the Christian faith has been subsumed into the superstitions of the culture. That does not make the film inaccurate or bad, but it does tend to tilt the film's ideology (which is much more implicit than verbalized) in the direction of humanism. People, children especially, are inherently good and institutions, hierarchies, power structures, and environment are what misshape them.

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In the final analysis, however, it is hard to give thumbs down to a film whose central messages are that AIDS is bad and sufferers deserve compassion.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Do children ever need to be "protected" from the truth? Is there a strain of love in Chandra's mother running away, or is it only a response to fear?
  2. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that two-thirds of all people between the ages of 15-49 living with AIDS are in sub-Saharan African countries. What conditions does the film depict that contribute to this epidemic?
  3. What is gossip? Are there legitimate ways of or reasons for sharing information about others, or is this always wrong?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Life, Above All is rated PG-13 for mature themes and implied sexual content. Chanda's stepfather is shown intoxicated (or high), and she and her family are subjected to painful verbal abuse. Chanda's school friend is shown living in squalid conditions, and the depiction of painful death from AIDS could be disturbing to younger viewers.

Life, Above All
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for mature themes and implied sexual content)
Directed By
Oliver Schmitz
Run Time
1 hour 40 minutes
Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane, Harriet Lenabe
Theatre Release
March 11, 2011 by Sony Pictures Classic
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