Life, Above All *** ½
Directed by: Oliver Schmitz.
Written by: Dennis Foon based on the novel by Allan Stratton.
Starring: Khomotso Manyaka (Chanda), Keaobaka Makanyane (Esther), Lerato Mvelase (Lillian), Harriet Lenabe (Mrs. Tafa), Aubrey Poolo (Jonah), Tinah Mnumzana (Aunt Lizbet), Mapaseka Mathebe (Iris), Thato Kgaladi (Soly).
Life Above All tells an inspiring story of a 12 year old girl in Africa under almost impossible circumstances. It is probably more fantasy than reality – especially the ending, which is improbably upbeat given everything that went before it, but I didn’t really mind. We want to believe in stories like this – that are truly inspiring and life affirming.
Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) has a difficult life in her small African village. She is very intelligent, and does well in school – when she can actually attend, which is becoming rare. Her infant sister has just died, and her stepfather, a drunk, blames it on her mother’s “poisoned” milk. And it’s true enough that her mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) seems to be sick – and is getting sicker. She finds no support from her family, who essentially disowned her when she married Chandra’s father, who later died. Lillian has two other live children besides Chanda, and she tries to protect them from the harsh realities of their situation. But as Lillian grows sicker – and everyone in their village starts rumors that she “the disease” (AIDS), things become harder – and get to a point where Lillian leaves “for treatment”. Chanda fears she’ll never come back. Her best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane) lost her parents, and saw her younger siblings taken away by relatives, but has to fend for herself. She makes money anyway she can – including prostitution. Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Lenabe), seems supportive of Lillian, but there’s something in the way she talks that makes Chanda believe she’s lying to her. Surely, she’ll take in the younger children if Lillian dies, but what will happen to her?
Directed by Oliver Schmitz, Life, Above All is an inspiring story, despite all the harsh realities it displays. It is inspiring because of what Chanda does – or rather what she doesn’t do, give up. She loves her mother and her siblings, and she loves Esther. When the rest of the village essentially abandons Esther, and spread rumors about Lillian, Chanda sticks by her own moral code. When Esther has nowhere else to go, she takes her in. She runs the risk of alienating everyone else in the village, but she does what she has to. When her mother doesn’t return home, she goes out to find her. Even if she is dying, she doesn’t deserve to die like an animal.
Young Khomotso Manyaka is great in the lead role. She is a beautiful girl, and yet she makes us believe in her toughness, her inner resolve. She is in practically every scene in the movie, and she carries it. The rest of the cast – especially Harreit Lenabe as Mrs. Tafa – are also excellent. Director Schmitz does a good job of portraying this community, with all its paranoia and superstitions, and doesn’t shy away from some of the harsher aspects of the community.
At least until the film’s final scene. I didn’t really buy the ending of the movie. Perhaps because the rest of the movie is so strong, and has done such a wonderful job of drawing its characters and this community, the ending seems like little more than wishful thinking. The film gives the audience the ending it wants – we want to believe that endings like this are possible – but perhaps not the ending the movie needs. It is a flaw in a otherwise wonderful film.