In the dusty small town of Elandsdoorn, a South African township not far from Johannesburg, life is simple and serene. A prevailing sense of deep pride tightly bonds together the entire community - but beware to those who step out of line ... 12-year-old Chanda is a hardworking promising young student with a bright future, but her life changes dramatically when her baby sister unexpectedly dies. Heartbroken, Chanda's mother, Lillian, in turn becomes severely ill. Her stepfather drowns himself in alcohol, leaving the young girl to take care of her two smaller siblings. Meanwhile, the formerly friendly neighbors become increasingly distant and gossip spreads. "Auntie" Tafa does what she can to help by getting Lillian to leave town, but not even "Auntie" is immune to the cloud of fear filtering across Elandsdoorn. Suspecting that the community's irrational ostracism has to do with her mother's illness and the death of her baby sister, Chanda demands answers but is met with stubborn ... Written by
A heart touching story about a girls fight to keep her family together
Oliver Schmitz, the German director has a panache for telling socially relevant stories about South Africa. In the hey days of the apartheid years he made the classic and iconic Mapantsula which through its lead character Panic, a petty criminal, the international world was able to see how bad the system is through Panic's story of political consciousness been awaken by events happening around him. In the 90's he made a post apartheid film Hi-Jack stories;it did not fare that well but touched on lure of gangsterism, hijacking and criminal behavior in the new South Africa. It's very poignant in the post Madiba- post Mbeki years and in the year of the Zuma presidency that Schmitz tackles the thorny issue of the shame that is associated with HIV/AIDS and the burden of child headed families due to this epidemic. Although immediately one would like to associate Life,above all with Yesterday but Life above all is a cut above Yesterday .It feels more sincere, touching and less whimsical than Yesterday, although the films are both set in the rural areas, both use vernacular and deal with stigmatization. I think the choice to tell the story from the child's perspective in Life, Above All is refreshing and the film actually feels more contemporary than Yesterday.
The child in question here is Khomotso Manyaka who plays Chanda; the eldest daughter in her family who has to act as a glue to hold the film and the family together as they go through trying times. Half the cast of the film have not appeared in anything before, and some of the cast are none actors ,so the performances are not always strong but they are always heart felt. Khomotso does a lot of heavy lifting and one hopes her career does not start and end here but keeps growing; for she is able to emote well and gives Chanda that naivety and tenacity at all the right moments. Then there's the evergreen Lerato Mvelase as Chanda's mother Lilian; Lerato gives Lilian that grace that a mother would have, although at times I felt she was a bit too young to have a child of Chandas age but her performance is that great that one easily overlooks that conceit. Then there's Harriet Lanabe as Mrs.Tafa; who if there was any justice in this world would be getting local awards for her performance in this role. She's brilliant; she inhibits this woman's character so well that one cannot distinguish between the character and the actor. There are plenty of acting talent in this film The film benefits for having evenly structured multi-stories were all the major characters have their journeys and we get to follow them to the end.So its not just about the messaging but there is a story that one can immerse themselves in.The powerful thing about this story is that it keeps bringing you back to our own reality and makes one ponder about one or two things as you are watching it.
What I liked about Life, Above All is that it shows that shame factor actually does not help the situation. Shaming people and trying to put them down and ostracizing them does not sort the problem but just makes it bigger and this can be said not just for HIV/AIDS but for homosexuality,criminal behavior or any social or familial problem. It is through Chanda's uncompromising love that we see a way out of the virtuous cycle of shame and guilt.This movie ain't easy to watch but it's not a bleak movie at all. Shcmitz captures the tone of the rural life very well, from costume, to weather to iconography but above all he is able to capture the idea of a community. How communities work ,the good,the bad and the darn ugly of communities but above all what communities can do together to uplift and not just to tear down. Do yourself a favor and watch this one, it's a classic in the making, a story about us on the big screen catching it while its there.
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