fri 19/07/2024

Life, Above All | reviews, news & interviews

Life, Above All

Life, Above All

A beautiful lead performance lights up a South African film about the impact of Aids

'Life, Above All' features a treasurable central performance by its young female star, Khomotso Manyaka

There was a time not long ago when British films and television dramas were shot in the Czech Republic and Hungary, where the studios were cheap and the landscape looked roughly analogous to our own. In recent years what feels like the entire film industry has migrated south, principally to South Africa, also for budgetary reasons (although the light is ideal).

While this is good news for South African film technicians, vanishingly few films which can describe themselves as South African are made, even fewer released internationally. Life, Above All is therefore a collector’s item.

Needless to say, black directors are non-existent, making Oliver Schmitz the great (white) hope of South African cinema. He has been around for a while. Mapantsula was made in 1988. Life, Above All is only his fourth film and like his debut it shines a light onto a nation's existential struggles. In Mapantsula the scourge of society was apartheid. In Life, Above All it’s Aids. Adapted from Allan Stratton's novel Chanda’s Secret, it tells of a girl from a small village where Aids is knocking over the population like nine pins. Chanda’s little sister is the first to be buried – though her death is kept from the younger siblings – and Chanda cannot help noticing that her mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) is increasingly shaky on her legs too.

It’s bad enough that the neighbours regard the disease as a curse, but the wrathful judgment of her family, who disapprove of her taste in dissolute men, only isolates Chanda further. Her closest friend Esther, an orphan, has taken to pleasuring truck drivers for money (Keaobaka Makanyane, looking frighteningly old for one so young). Chanda’s only advantage is education: her ability to read reveals to her that the proudly displayed certificates of the doctor treating her mother are fraudulent.

02_Life_Above_AllThis is essentially the narrative of South Africa’s birth pangs as a modern nation attempts to educate itself out of the dark ages. Superstition bedevils backwoods villagers (you can lob in a generous dose of religious intolerance), and ignorance exposes them to danger. At times the script by Stratton and Dennis Foon, which drives the story efficiently towards its inevitable end, reads like a craftily packaged information film about the perils of unprotected sex. But there is plenty to savour. The hot dusty streets and skies are ravishingly filmed by Bernhard Jasper, while Schmitz coaxes believable performances out of a company of untested actors. And, quite apart from hypnotic funereal wailing by multi-part choirs, the percussive Sotho dialogue has its own music.

But the main reason for seeing Life, Above All is a treasurable central performance by its young female star, Khomotso Manyaka (pictured above with Mvelase). At a guess she was no more than 13 when the film was shot. It could be suggested that Chanda’s essential and unswerving integrity could use a bit of shading but, on screen for almost all of the film, Manyaka’s invests her with a feral resourcefulness that is beautiful to behold.

  • Life, Above All is on release from today
At times the script reads like a craftily packaged information film about the perils of unprotected sex

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This film sounds really good. I love to see South Africa well filmed. And the story is a really important one for South Africans to hear. Even the educated kids out there are sadly ignorant about the threat of AIDS.

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