Oliver Schmitz’s is the sort of film one would like to embrace warmly, but while his adaptation of Allan Stratton’s novel is certainly earnest and well-intentioned, it’s also rather heavy-handed.
The two great strengths of “Life, Above All” are its realistic setting in rural South Africa and the lead performance of Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda, the twelve-year old girl who’s in effect the story’s heroine—long-suffering despite her tender years. As the film opens, she’s arranging the funeral for her baby sister; her mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) is ill and grieving, and her stepfather Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) is a shiftless drunk who blames his wife for the child’s death. Chanda’s best friend is the orphan Esther (Keapbaka Makanyane), an outcast who’s dismissed as a prostitute by the townsfolk, and the family’s next-door neighbor is Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela), an intrusive woman still mourning the death of her son in what’s described as a shooting in which he played a heroic role.
Chanda must become the functioning head of their household when Jonah disappears and Lillian goes off to recuperate with her family, including perpetually angry, hard-nosed Aunt Lizbet (Tinah Mnumzana). As such she has to struggle to prepare for her exams while caring for her half-brother and half-sister (Thato Kgaladi and Mapaseka Mathebe) and helping Esther, despite Mrs. Tafa’s interference. It’s not an easy job for a young girl.
Though the preceding might not make it clear, the underlying theme of “Life, Above All” is the fear of AIDS among South Africans and the hostility and ostracism that confront those who suffer from the disease, and their families. It’s a powerful point, one certainly deserving of attention, and especially in the performances of Manyaka and Mvelase, it comes across strongly. But the larger village context is depicted with a disappointing lack of subtlety. The character of Dudu, a local lush played by Koomotso Ditshwene, is an especially gross caricature. And Manamela’s Mrs. Tafa comes on so strongly that her abruptly heroic intervention at the close comes across almost comically.
The film, shot by Bernhard Jasper, has a gritty look that suits the hardscrabble lives of the characters, and Ali N. Askin’s music is generally supportive, although the use of the chorus at several points has an obligatory feel to it.
One has to respect “Life, Above All” for tackling an important fact about modern African life with such conviction. Though one wishes it could have addressed the subject without resorting to what amounts to melodrama, young Manyaka’s compelling performance makes it worth seeing.