Life, Above All
Close-up view of a courageous preteen
"Life, Above All’’ is an issues drama that hides its agenda behind characters and a sense of place and the drawn-out suspense of speaking a single word. The place is South Africa and the word is “AIDS,’’ and the movie is more than half over before the main character works up the nerve to say it. Courage is the real subject here - the journey a 12-year-old girl takes from abject shame to naming a plague because no one else dares to.
In the opening scene of “Life, Above All,’’ Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) visits the undertaker to arrange the funeral of her infant sister. The sight of the tiny coffin quietly announces the film’s intent to skip the niceties and confront the facts, even if the characters refuse to. Chanda’s no-good stepfather (Aubrey Poolo) is out drinking in the shabeens; her gentle-spirited mother (Lerato Mvelase) has her hands full with two younger children; both parents are infected with the HIV virus and steadfastly refuse to acknowledge it.
Indeed, a thick cloud of not knowing hangs over this society and drags it toward apocalypse. “Life, Above All’’ takes place in a rural township in the northeast but it represents all of South Africa, all of Africa, anywhere where panic and willful ignorance hold sway. If those allegorical underpinnings blur the film’s edges, the performances bring it back into focus.
The actors are mostly nonprofessionals and it shows; Manyaka has to shoulder a heavy load as a shy adolescent girl standing up to her own culture. The most touching scenes in “Life, Above All’’ are between Chanda and her best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), an impish rebel and one of the numberless AIDS orphans in South Africa. As grueling as Esther’s downward trek into homelessness and prostitution is, the relationship between the two girls is honestly observed and ultimately cleansing.
It’s a film about women: angry, frightened, proud, defeated, resilient. The film’s juiciest performance comes from Harriet Manamela as Mrs. Tafa, the neighborhood’s de facto mayor and a force of will and denial who stands for everything Chanda has to overcome if she wants to find help for her mother. Big of heart and quick to judge, Mrs. Tafa is a formidable figure, and where she goes, the township - and presumably all of Africa - may follow.
The director is a German, Oliver Schmitz, whose South African filmography goes back to the groundbreaking “Mapantsula,’’ made during the apartheid era. He keeps the camera in close on the actors’ faces, urging them to see the larger picture, and he coats the photography in a warm, dusty glow. The soundtrack burbles with township jive. There’s hope here, but to see it you have to open your eyes to everything else.
“Life, Above All’’ invests most of that hope in Chanda. She can read, for one thing, so she can tell the “diplomas’’ on a quack’s wall are certificates from a herbal remedy company. She understands that the witch doctor brought in by Mrs. Tafa is a backward step, and she takes several forward steps toward the health clinic, where they’re not afraid to put a name to things. To a Western audience, the movie may at times feel pat, cooked up, wishful beyond realistic measure. But we’re not the ones who need to see it.