Growing up in a world of AIDS
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Aug 05, 2011
"Life, Above All," a deeply moving South African drama about AIDS and ostracism, manages to be, paradoxically, both austere and uplifting. Though the uplifting part will, for some, be too little and too late to mitigate the film's overall funereal tone, it still might leave you with a faint, faltering smile on your face at the closing credits.
But you probably won't even notice it, on account of all the tears that are likely to be streaming down your cheeks by that time.
Based on the acclaimed young-adult novel "Chanda's Secrets" by Allan Stratton, the movie centers on Chanda (incandescent newcomer Khomotso Manyaka), a smart if constitutionally melancholy 12-year-old worrywart who lives with her mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), and two younger half siblings (Mapaseka Mathebe and Thato Kgaladi). As the film opens, Chanda and her family are about to bury a third, an infant sibling named Sarah.
Lillian is seriously ill, as is her ne'er-do-well husband, Jonah (Aubrey Poolo), the father of Lillian's three youngest children. Chanda's father died several years earlier.
And, yes, that's a lot of death and sickness for one skinny preteen to handle. As Chanda, Manyaka - whose face is a mutable barometer of the storms inside her - seems to be carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. In a way, she is.
In addition to Lillian and Jonah's infirmity, Chanda is burdened with other, hidden concerns. One has to do with her growing certainty that Lillian and Jonah's sickness - not to mention Sarah's - is not influenza, insomnia, rheumatism or "demons," as various characters suggest, but AIDS. The problem is that no one, let alone Chanda, will say it out loud, on account of the social stigma associated with the disease.
For much of the movie, the word isn't even mentioned. And still it looms, like a specter, over the story, as Lillian is sent first to a naturopath, then a traditional healer and, eventually, to relatives in the country, where she is expected to die quietly and out of sight.
Chanda's other millstone is Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), her best friend from school. As willful as Chanda is dutiful, Esther has recently begun working as a prostitute at the local truck stop. Soon enough, she, too, begins to worry that she's been infected. Chanda's loyalty to her friend brings down the censure of the community, which sees Esther - and, by extension, anyone who associates with her - as an undesirable.
What keeps all of this from becoming oppressive, and from suffocating the little film, is the performance of Manyaka. She convincingly portrays Chanda's determined search for dignity in the face of social approbation, superstition and bigotry.
The young actress is a revelation.
So is Makanyane as Esther. The unguardedness of these two performers' faces - and the expansiveness of their smiles as they interact with each other - cracks this dark, potentially depressing film wide open, letting in just enough light to illuminate the contours of the human heart.
Contains brief obscenity, some disturbing and violent imagery and child prostitution. In Pedi with subtitles.