Based on the Allan Stratton’s 2004 novel ‘Chanda’s Secrets’, this is a powerful story about life in a rural South African township suffering from the effects of HIV and Aids and from denial and ignorance about the illness. Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), a bright 12 year old girl, is caring for her ill and worsening mother, having already lost her younger sibling. Oliver Schmitz (Mapantsula, and a segment of Paris, Je T’Aime) does not allow the narrative to be lost in hopelessness, as this is primarily a film about the resilience of those affected. (Cert 12A)
Dir: Oliver Schmitz 101 mins South Africa/Ger. 2010
Life, Above All
South Africa/ Ger. 2010 101 minutes Cert. 12A
Twelve year old Chanda has an errand on her return from school: to choose a coffin for her baby sister, whose body is still being cradled by their grieving mother, also unwell. Her stepfather has sought solace in the township bar and the arms of the women plying their trade there. The other residents, striving for bourgeois respectability, are judgemental as Chanda’s mother’s health worsens – deeming it divine retribution for past behaviour. They are critical too of Chanda’s best friend, Esther, whose family circumstances are leading her to think of prostitution. Then there’s Chanda’s neighbour, the well-meaning but controlling Mrs Tafa, whose own son – an athlete – died in unclear circumstances. The neighbour’s decision to send Chanda’s mother to her ancestral village provides Chanda, without doubt our heroine, with her biggest challenges.
The film is based on the award winning novel Chanda’s Secrets by the Canadian writer, Allan Stratton. The initial script development was a Canadian investment, with Vancouver-based Dennis Foon chosen as screenwriter. Most of the funding, however, came from Bavaria Film International of Germany, with South African funding organisations reputedly reluctant to invest in a film showing the country in a less than positive light. Nevertheless the film was South Africa’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Academy Awards.
Dialogue in the film is in Northern Sotho, a Bantu language spoken in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, north east of Johannesburg. The town in which much of the filming took place is Elandsdoorn in that province. The two child actors were local schoolchildren with no acting experience. Already friends before the film was made, they are now both studying dramatic arts at the Johannesburg National School of the Arts, with ambitions for acting careers. Their education is funded from the film’s proceeds and from local sources.
Cinematographically the country looks stunning, filmed in saturated honeyed colours by Bernhard Jasper. Yet it is in this garden of lost innocence, with the lurking serpent of ignorance and self delusion, that the admirably strong and good natured Chanda shows her resilience. Time magazine’s critic, Mary Corliss, likened the plot to that of a Frank Capra film, with the protagonist facing testing trials and public opprobrium as in Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. She acknowledges, however, that Chanda differs with her strong sense of self-belief.
Chanda – Khomotso Manyaka
Esther – Keaobaka Makanyane
Lillian – Lerato Mvelase
Mrs Tafa – Harriet Lenabe
Jonah – Aubrey Poolo
Sipho – Mandla Ernest Mokoena
Aunt Lizbet – Tinah Mnumzana
Director – Oliver Schmitz
Screenplay – Dennis Foon. Based on Allan Stratton’s novel ‘Chanda’s Secrets’.
Cinematography – Bernhard Jasper
Original Music – Ali N Askin, Ian Osrin
Producer – Oliver Stolz
“Here’s a film only an utter cad could hate.” Donald Clarke, The Irish Times
“By directly dealing with the poisonous climate of rumour and gossip, the film takes a stand. But in nations where AIDS has been demystified, “Life, Above All” will play strongly as pure human drama, and of two women, one promptly and one belatedly, rising courageously to a challenge.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“Powerful, wonderful performances”
“Distressing and moving – what to say of it as a film?”
“Brilliant – acting, photography, everything”
“Very moving – should be required viewing”
“Riveting, fascinating, marvellously moving – altogether brilliant”
“What an insight! very powerful, very humbling”
“What can one say? The whole scenario is so frightening and horribly real. Thank you for showing it.”
“Very good, gripping from start, but almost unbearably depressing. Excellent performance from the lead actress. But a tiny bit circular and pat right at the end.”
“Life, Above All is a proper weepie. The emotionally powerful storyline deals with such themes as religion, discrimination, science and the role that society plays when dealing with death and disease.”
“Especially strong because of the involvement of the South African people and particularly the childen. Emphasises the importance of education above everything.”
“Very good indeed”
“A very sad and affecting story, but I was left wondering how everyone made a living.”
“Very well done – but the redemption of the village came a bit too easy. Excellent acting from all the main characters.”
“Major failing: did not work in the role of the S.A. authorities in actively promoting the deathly ignorance of so many people. As it stands the film leaves the audience to attach more blame than is justifiable to the believers in witchcraft etc; especially given the utter incredibility of the more or less instant change of heart of the crowd at the end.”