Title: Life, Above All
Director: Oliver Schmitz
Starring: Khomotso Manyaka, Lerato Mvelase, Aubrey Poolo, Keaobaka Makanyane, Harriet Lenabe
A debut at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and the closing night gala presentation at the recent Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Oliver Schmitz’s “Life, Above All” is a well constructed, emotionally rich, issues-oriented drama that unfolds through the perspective of a determined young South African girl. Based on Allan Stratton’s respected novel “Chanda’s Secrets”, the movie should receive modest embrace in arthouse and specialty markets drawn to foreign films, especially given the gravity and unfortunately enduring topicality of the tough circumstances with which its grown-up-too-soon protagonist grapples.
In a dust-ridden village on the outskirts of Johannesburg, 12-year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka, quite good) lives with her mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), and two younger step-siblings. The death of Lillian’s youngest child, a newborn little girl, has stirred up old chaos and addictions. Chanda’s alcoholic stepfather Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) has fallen off the wagon, convinced that Lillian’s breast milk poisoned his “good seed,” and killed their baby. Already distraught and depressed, Lillian becomes sick, and given Jonah’s philandering ways Chanda thinks her mother might have contracted the AIDS virus. When, on the advice of a local shaman, Lillian leaves town without her children, Chanda’s relationship with her helpful but increasingly judgmental neighbor, Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Lenabe), is further complicated by her attempts to intervene in the troubles of her best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), who has turned to prostitution.
Not entirely unlike Jennifer Lawrence’s character in last year’s critical darling “Winter’s Bone”, Chanda is forced into a situation whereby she must serve as a caregiver to younger (half-)siblings, while also attempting to modulate difficult circumstances further compounded by adults who have checked out. The narrative here, however, is a bit less bleak and more constructed for a sense of audience-friendly uplift, even given the potentially dark nature of some its subject matter. As the title of its source material might suggest, the film unfolds through Chanda’s perspective, and in this important respect “Life, Above All” has a guide worth following — sympathetic but untethered to mannered formality.
The story charts a fairly expected path but Schmitz, a South African-born filmmaker of German descent, obviously has a unique connection to the material — a sort of insider’s outside view, one might say — that keeps the movie from tipping over into the maudlin or contrived. One feels the class and gender conflict (including the damning opinions women impose upon other women) without being hammered over the head with it. Cinematographer Bernhard Jasper’s digitally-captured work, meanwhile, favors natural lighting, and nicely captures the emotionally persuasive on-location settings, giving Life, Above All a true sense of rooted place.
Written by: Brent Simon