Life, Above All

Life, Above All


Reviewed by: James Benefield

The determination of love is key in this moving drama from South Africa.

We follow young schoolgirl Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), who is forced to become the lynchpin of her disease-stricken family. As the story begins, we see Chanda in a funeral home, choosing a coffin for her dead baby sister as her mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), lies ill at home. Things don't get much easier for the little girl; Lillian's condition deteriorates, forcing Chanda to leave school and her friends in order to stay at home as a carer, as well as a kind of mum to her two other, increasingly troublesome, siblings. We don't hear about the identity of the disease which is killing Lillian, and has killed her newborn baby, until surprisingly late in the film, but it's not a massive leap of the imagination to work it out.

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The film's subject is an urgent one and the result is a devastatingly sad motion picture. Director Oliver Shmitz does a good job of balancing the immediate, visible tragedy of the characters we follow with a wider, national problem. Disease is shown in an everyday, social context; overstretched hospitals with huge queues and an air of menace, the prejudice of neighbours, friends and acquaintances helping to turn the issue into a taboo, and also the lack of immediate financial and practical support for the poorer families are all highlighted here.

Indeed, one of the stars here, is the director. Schmitz's decision to play it straight, without an overly intrusive soundtrack and with a documentary-style range of camera movements, which, again, never feel too attention-grabbing, is perfectly judged. Voyeurism, or even a kind of 'poverty porn' is avoided by the brevity of the shots, the quickness of the edit and the fairly brisk running time. We see enough here, but we don't linger.

But the film's real star is Manyaka as Chanda, who is on screen in pretty much every scene. It's a demanding role, which could too easily degenerate into an irritating, distancing sentimentality. However, Manyaka lends an impressive authority and resilience to Chanda – and it really does lift the drama into something even more complicated and more moving, even in the bleakest of moments.

Thanks to this great central performance, a script that takes time to consider a wider context and a surprisingly understated directorial eye, this is accomplished stuff. It may not find a huge audience as it's accessibility makes it not obviously art-house enough, and its relative lack of bells and whistles make it obviously not Hollywood enough, but this is a story which needs to be told and, here, it's told rather well.

Reviewed on: 20 Feb 2012
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Life, Above All packshot
A 12-year-old girl struggles to protect her family as her stepfather descends into alcoholism and her mother becomes increasingly ill, in a small town full of prejudice and hostility.
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Director: Oliver Schmitz

Writer: Dennis Foon, based on the book Chanda's Secrets by Allan Stratton.

Starring: Khomotso Manyaka, Lerato Mvelase, Harriet Manamela

Year: 2010

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: South Africa, Germany

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